The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

The Twentieth Wife This story of seventeenth century Mughal India is the first in a trilogy of novels describing the history behind the construction of the Taj Mahal. In The Twentieth Wife, Indian author Indu Sundaresan introduces us to Mehrunissa, later known as the Empress Nur Jahan. The Taj Mahal was actually built in memory of Nur Jahan’s niece, but that part of the story must be told in the other two books of the trilogy as this one concentrates on the tale of Mehrunissa and her love for Prince Salim, the future Emperor Jahangir.

Born to Persian refugees who are fleeing their country, Mehrunissa is abandoned by her impoverished father, Ghias Beg, on the road to India because with no money, no job and no home, he fears that he and his wife will be unable to take care of her. Luckily, fate steps in and Mehrunissa is rescued by the merchant, Malik, who befriends her parents and helps Ghias Beg find a position at the court of the Emperor Akbar. Growing up at court, Mehrunissa is taken under the wing of Akbar’s favourite wife, Ruqayya, and spends a lot of time in the zenana (harem) listening to gossip and witnessing the rivalries between the Emperor’s other wives and concubines.

Mehrunissa is only eight years old when she has her first glimpse of Prince Salim, who is marrying his first wife. That first glimpse is enough for her to make up her mind that one day she too will marry Salim and become Empress. When Salim falls in love with her several years later, it seems that Mehrunissa’s wish could come true…but of course, things don’t go exactly as planned! The Twentieth Wife follows Mehrunissa and Salim (or Jahangir as he becomes known) through years of separation, unhappy marriages and political intrigue. Do they eventually marry? Well, the title of the novel gives us a big clue so there are no surprises there, but the path that leads to Mehrunissa becoming Jahangir’s twentieth wife is a long and eventful one, and you can expect plenty of drama along the way: rebellions, assassination attempts and the scheming of Mehrunissa’s rival, Jagat Gosini.

I found a lot to like in this novel, but not everything worked for me. My biggest problem was that with the romance between Mehrunissa and Jahangir forming such a central part of the story, I didn’t find that romance convincing enough. I struggled to see the attraction of Jahangir during the first half of the novel. He was an alcoholic and an opium addict, too easily influenced by unscrupulous advisers and was even plotting to have his father murdered. He started to redeem himself later in the book, but is still not high on my list of favourite romantic heroes!

As for Mehrunissa, I found it difficult to accept that she could fall so passionately in love at the age of eight with a man she didn’t even know and that her love for him could continue into her adult life despite only meeting him once or twice more in all that time. I got the impression that she just wanted to marry him because he was a prince rather than who he was as a person and I didn’t start to really believe in their romance until near the end of the book.

I did like the way Sundaresan writes about India. The Twentieth Wife is a very descriptive book: the clothes, the buildings and gardens, the food and drink, the traditions and rituals of court and the zenana are all described in vivid detail. I do enjoy reading historical fiction novels set in India, though I’m sorry to say that most of the others I’ve read were written by non-Indian authors (M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions is my favourite). I wasn’t aware of Indu Sundaresan until I saw The Twentieth Wife listed as one of Aarti’s suggestions for A More Diverse Universe and I’m pleased I decided to give it a chance. I’m not sure I like this book enough to want to continue with the sequel, but it was good to have learned a little bit about a period of Indian history I knew nothing about. While I didn’t love this particular book I would still be happy to try one of Sundaresan’s others outside of the Taj Mahal trilogy.

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This was my second read for A More Diverse Universe hosted by BookLust.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave With only four of Mary Stewart’s suspense novels still to read, I decided that for Anbolyn’s Mary Stewart Reading Week I would try one of her Arthurian novels instead. The Crystal Cave is the first in the series and introduces us to Myrddin Emrys, better known as Merlin. I should begin by saying that I have previously read very few novels that tell the story of Merlin or King Arthur (T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone is the only one that really comes to mind). I wasn’t sure that The Crystal Cave would be my type of book and I wondered if I would regret not picking up another of the romantic suspense novels for the reading week. Well, I can assure you that I didn’t regret my choice at all!

The book is set in 5th century Britain, a land of several warring kingdoms held together by Vortigern, the High King. Vortigern has invited the Saxons to Britain to help him rule, but they are disliked by the people and Vortigern’s throne is soon under threat not only from his own son, Vortimer, but also from two other princes – Ambrosius and Uther who are exiled in Less Britain (Britanny). This is the world into which Merlin is born.

Our story begins with six-year-old Merlin living in the home of his grandfather, the King of South Wales. Merlin’s mother is the King’s daughter, Niniane, but the identity of his father is unknown as Niniane has refused to reveal his name. Merlin is a lonely child, despised by his grandfather, but he is also very intelligent, quick to learn and has a special gift known as ‘the Sight’. One day he rides out into the hills near his home and discovers a cave inhabited by a man called Galapas. Inside this cave is a second, smaller cave filled with crystals in which Merlin has visions when he looks into the light of these crystals. When fate takes him across the Narrow Sea to Less Britain several years later, Merlin meets the exiled Ambrosius and makes some important discoveries about both the past and the future…

The Crystal Cave is a great book and is now one of my absolute favourites by Mary Stewart. It obviously has a different feel from her contemporary suspense novels, but there were also some similarities and I could definitely tell it was written by the same author! Whenever I read a Stewart novel I expect a strong setting with vivid descriptions and I certainly got that with this book. Merlin’s travels take him through England, Brittany and Ireland, to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, to the wonders of Stonehenge and, of course, to Wales:

There were rain clouds massing in the west, but in front of them, like a bright curtain, the slanting sunlight. One could see on a day like this why the green hills of Wales had been called the Black Mountains and the valleys running through them the Valleys of Gold. Bars of sunlight lay along the trees of the golden valleys, and the hills stood slate-blue or black behind them, with their tops supporting the sky.

One thing that surprised me about this book is that it does not have such a strong fantasy element as I’d expected. While Merlin certainly does have visions which foretell the future, many of the things he does have very little to do with magic and more to do with his observations and understanding of science and of human nature. I loved the way his character was portrayed; he felt so believable and real. It probably helped that I don’t have a lot of previous knowledge of the myths and legends surrounding Merlin which meant I had no preconceived ideas and could just concentrate on enjoying Mary Stewart’s version of the story. I’m so pleased I chose The Crystal Cave for the Reading Week and am now looking forward to meeting Merlin again in The Hollow Hills!

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists The Garden of Evening Mists is set in Malaya and is narrated by Teoh Yun Ling, a Straits Chinese woman who, at the beginning of the novel, has retired after a long and successful career as a Supreme Court Judge in Kuala Lumpur. Returning to the Cameron Highlands area of the Malayan Peninsula – a very special place for Yun Ling, being the site of both the garden of Yugiri (‘evening mists’) and her friends’ tea plantation, Majuba – she makes the decision to write her memoirs, even if that means remembering things she would rather forget.

In a series of flashbacks, we go back with Yun Ling to the 1950s, during a time of conflict known as the Malayan Emergency. This is when she first comes to Yugiri and meets its creator, Nakamura Aritomo, the former gardener to the Japanese emperor. Yun Ling hopes Aritomo will design a garden in memory of her sister but he refuses, offering instead to take her on as an apprentice so that she can learn how to do it herself. At first, she finds it difficult to be near Aritomo (she and her sister, Yun Hong, were both imprisoned in a Japanese camp during World War II) but as they work together in the garden Yun Ling slowly begins to come to terms with the traumas of her past.

This is the second novel by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng and enjoyed a lot of success following its publication in 2012 – the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Having now read it, I agree that it’s an excellent book and deserved its success. Until recently, I had very little knowledge of Malaya (or Malaysia as we now know it). Now I have read two books in two months (The Separation by Dinah Jefferies was the first) and I’m finding it a very interesting country to read about. The Garden of Evening Mists covers three different periods in the country’s history: the Japanese Occupation of the 1940s, the Emergency of the 1950s, and the more recent past, probably the 1980s, in which Malaysia is an independent country.

We wait a long time to hear what exactly happened to Yun Ling and Yun Hong in the Japanese camp, but we do find out eventually – although certain details continue to be withheld or only hinted at. It’s understandable as this is Yun Ling’s own story to tell and she can choose what to say and not to say; some memories may be too painful or uncomfortable to bring to the surface. It was the wartime sections of the book that I found the most gripping and emotional, however. I was particularly moved by the story told by Tatsuji, a Japanese art collector who visits Yun Ling in the present day, about Japan’s kamikaze pilots.

This is not just a book about war and suffering, though. Gardening, as you might have guessed from the title, also plays a big part in the story. Gardens are usually peaceful places to sit or to walk – and reading about gardens feels peaceful too. I don’t have a lot of interest in gardening myself but I was fascinated by the descriptions of Yugiri and the techniques used by Aritomo to create illusions of depth and distance. He puts so much thought into where to place every rock, every stone. As well as gardening, Aritomo is also a master of other art forms including woodcuts (ukiyo-e) and tattooing (horimono), and these were interesting to read about too. Other aspects of Japanese, Chinese and Malaysian culture are also covered in the novel, such as storytelling and mythology. But most of all, this is a book about memory: memory and the act of forgiving and forgetting.

There are so many ideas and themes packed into this wonderful novel and I’ve only managed to discuss a few of them here. I haven’t even mentioned how beautifully written it is and how cleverly it is structured. As I read, I wanted to go back and read earlier passages again because things were taking on more and more meaning as more layers were revealed. It’s that sort of book.

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I read The Garden of Evening Mists as part of A More Diverse Universe hosted by Aarti of BookLust. The event doesn’t end until Saturday 27th September so there’s still time for you to join in.

Top Ten Tuesday: Needing to read more

I don’t normally take part in Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), but this week’s topic is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently:

Top Authors I’ve Only Read One Book From But NEED to Read More

There are many, many authors I could include in this list, but I’ve decided just to concentrate on authors I’ve tried for the first time since I started book blogging. After the name of each author, I have given the title of the one book I’ve read…and of course, I would welcome any suggestions as to which books I should read next!

Life After Life

1. Kate Atkinson (Life After Life)
This was one of my favourite books read last year, so it seems ridiculous that I haven’t tried any of her others yet. I’m looking forward to starting the Jackson Brodie series.

2. Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale)
I loved this, but I read it for “Advent with Atwood” two Decembers ago and still haven’t picked up any more of her books. That will have to change soon!

3. E.M. Forster (A Room with a View)
Early last year I participated in a “Turn of the Century Salon” reading event and decided to try two authors who were new to me. I liked both but haven’t got round to reading a second book by either of them yet. One of these authors was E.M. Forster (I think Howards End will be the next of his books I read) and the other was #4 below.

The Painted Veil 4. W Somerset Maugham (The Painted Veil)
This is another novel that found its way onto my favourite books of the year list last year, but again, I still haven’t explored Maugham’s other work. I like the sound of The Moon and Sixpence.

5. Barbara Pym (Less than Angels)
This isn’t regarded as one of Barbara Pym’s most successful books, but I did enjoy it and am expecting to love some of her others…especially Excellent Women which I really must read soon!

6. Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe)
I was always intimidated by the thought of reading Walter Scott, until I read Ivanhoe and found it much easier to read than I’d expected. As I do love reading classic historical fiction, I’m sure I would like Scott’s other novels too…if I could only find time to read them!

Ethan Frome7. Josephine Tey (The Daughter of Time)
I read this because of my interest in Richard III but I do want to read some of Josephine Tey’s other mystery novels eventually as well.

8. Elizabeth von Arnim (The Enchanted April)
It’s been more than three years since I read this book and I still haven’t read another von Arnim, despite stating in my review that I would “definitely be reading more”.

9. Edith Wharton (Ethan Frome)
I didn’t love Ethan Frome, but I’m hoping I’ll love one of Edith Wharton’s other novels. The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are both on my Classics Club list.

10. John Wyndham (The Midwich Cuckoos)
I don’t read science fiction very often, but I enjoyed this book when I read it a year ago. I think The Day of the Triffids will probably be next.

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Do you like any of these authors? Do I need to read more of their work? What would you recommend?

Your Beautiful Lies by Louise Douglas

Your Beautiful Lies It’s 1984 and British families and communities are being torn apart by a miners’ strike. While miners clash with the police and tensions grow between the government and the mining unions, in the small Yorkshire town of Matlow Annie Howarth is facing trouble of a different kind. Her former boyfriend, Tom Greenaway, has just been released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. Meeting Tom again after such a long separation, Annie finds that she still has feelings for him – and that she’s not at all convinced he was guilty of the crime of which he was accused.

A lot of things have changed during those years apart, though. Annie is now married to police chief William Howarth and they have a young daughter, Lizzie. Leaving William for Tom could mean losing Lizzie, as well as the expensive house and comfortable lifestyle William’s salary provides. When a woman is murdered on the moors near the Howarths’ home, suspicion falls on Tom again and this time Annie must try to separate the truth from the ‘beautiful lies’.

This is the third Louise Douglas novel I’ve read and while I didn’t love it as much as The Secrets Between Us or In Her Shadow, I still enjoyed it. The backdrop of the miners’ strike is not a setting that I’ve seen used in fiction very often and yet it was a hugely important time in British history from both a social and political perspective. By making Annie’s husband a policeman and her father a miner, the author shows how loyalties were divided not just within towns and villages but within families too.

The story also has a strong mystery element, with the police investigating the murder on the moors and the question of who Annie can and can’t trust, but this is where I thought the book was less successful in comparison with The Secrets Between Us and In Her Shadow. It’s a very atmospheric novel (the bleakness and claustrophobia of Annie’s life is perfectly portrayed) but I found it less suspenseful than the previous two books and had my suspicions as to the likely identity of the murderer long before the answer was revealed. The ending was not entirely surprising, but very abrupt and not entirely satisfying either!

I didn’t like Annie very much – it seemed to me that she was being unnecessarily reckless and irresponsible – but I did think Douglas did a good job of depicting the boredom and loneliness of her daily existence and the reasons why her marriage to William was not a happy one. Because we see everything through Annie’s eyes, however, we can never be sure that we’re getting a fair and balanced picture of either of the men in her life. I think the only characters I did actually like were Annie’s brother, Johnnie, who remains cheerful and optimistic despite having some terrible things happen to him over the course of the novel, and William’s mother, Ethel, struggling with dementia but still aware that something isn’t quite right in the Howarth household.

I’ve been very impressed with all three of the Louise Douglas books that I’ve read, despite the few problems I had with this one. They are difficult to classify as belonging to a particular genre, being a mixture of crime, romance, suspense and domestic drama, but it’s a mixture that I love and that’s why I’m already looking forward to her next book, whatever that may be!

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest I often find myself beginning a review by stating where and when the novel is set. With Harvest I can’t do that, because we aren’t told. All we know is that it’s a small rural community where for generations the people who live there have worked on the land, ploughing, planting and harvesting. This is the way of life they have always known and this is how they have always supported themselves and their families.

Things begin to change when a ‘chart-maker’ whom the villagers refer to as Mr Quill arrives and proceeds to measure and map the land. Soon it becomes clear that their new landowner (the Master’s cousin-in-law) has plans to enclose their fields and convert them to sheep farming. Meanwhile, three more strangers have settled on the outskirts of the village and have lit a fire, sending up plumes of smoke to let people know that they are there and planning to stay there. That same day, smoke is also seen coming from the manor house. When it is discovered that Master Kent’s dovecote has been burned to the ground, the newcomers are blamed and the way the villagers react to this crime will have greater consequences than they could ever have imagined.

We see all of these developments through the eyes of Walter Thirsk, who has lived in the village for twelve years but is still seen as an outsider because of his close relationship with Master Kent. Although he refers to himself and his neighbours as ‘we’ there’s always a sense that he is slightly distanced from what is going on. Walter is in the unique position of being part of the community and not part of it at the same time, which makes his story even more interesting.

When reading a novel that appears to be set in the past, it’s natural to want to know exactly which period we are reading about. My guess is that it’s England in the sixteenth century, though it could be slightly earlier or later than that. It is certainly a time of agricultural change, when common land is being fenced off and enclosed. It’s also a superstitious time when strangers are viewed with suspicion and anyone different risks being accused of witchcraft. Other than these facts, we are given very few clues – no names of nearby towns and cities, no mentions of historical figures or events that we could use as a point of reference.

So why does Jim Crace not just tell us when the story is set? The obvious answer is that he doesn’t want us to think of this book as ‘historical’, fixed in the past in a time that has been and gone. He wants us to think beyond this, to consider how some of the ideas in the novel are timeless and still relevant to us today. In Walter Thirsk’s village, the wheat and barley farming that has sustained the people for many years is being replaced with wool production because this will be more cost-effective for the landowner. Anyone who has ever lost their job, lost their home or been forced into a new way of life because of change and progress will know how that feels. This story (or one very similar) could just as easily have been set during the Industrial Revolution or in more recent times when tasks that were once performed by human beings were being replaced by computers.

Harvest is also a beautifully written book. I am not usually a fan of novels written in the present tense, but this is an example of one where it works well and is very effective. The novel only covers a week in Walter Thirsk’s life but it is a very eventful week and the present tense helps to convey the sense that things are moving quickly and happening now. It’s also a book with a lot of atmosphere and an underlying darkness, with the story building in tension towards the end.

This is not the first Jim Crace novel I’ve read. I have vague memories of reading Quarantine, probably soon after it was published in 1997, but I can’t remember very much about it now. That story hasn’t stayed with me but I’m sure this one will.

A Triple Knot by Emma Campion

A Triple Knot There are some historical women whose lives have been covered many times in fiction – Elizabeth I is one example and Anne Boleyn is another. The heroine of Emma Campion’s latest novel, A Triple Knot, is a less popular choice: she is Joan of Kent, cousin of King Edward III and once described as “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England”.

Joan is the daughter of Edmund, Earl of Kent, and his wife, the Countess Margaret. Edmund, the younger half-brother of the deposed Edward II, is executed for treason several years before our story begins, leaving Joan and her brother to grow up in the household of their cousin, Edward III, and his wife, Philippa of Hainault. Joan’s Plantagenet blood and her great beauty give the King reason to hope that he can negotiate a marriage for her that will be useful to him from a political perspective. When he and Philippa notice that their own son, Ned (who will become known as the Black Prince), seems to be showing too much interest in Joan, they decide that she needs to be married off sooner rather than later. However, Joan has other ideas.

On a journey to the Low Countries to see the father of a potential husband picked out for her by Edward and Philippa, Joan meets and falls in love with Sir Thomas Holland. Thomas is twenty-six and Joan is only twelve, but while their relationship would be shocking by modern standards, this is the fourteenth century and an age difference like this is not too uncommon. They marry in secret, knowing that the King would not approve, but are soon parted when Thomas has to return to the army. Back at home with her family, Joan is forced into a second marriage with William Montague, the Earl of Salisbury’s son, and faces a long, difficult battle to prove that her marriage to Thomas was legal. But as she and Thomas struggle to have their marriage recognised, the Black Prince waits for his chance to win back the woman he has always wanted more than any other.

A Triple Knot is the first book I’ve read by Emma Campion, but I’m aware that she has also written a novel about Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III, as well as a series of historical mysteries published under the name Candace Robb. Having read this one, I’m not sure I would want to try any of her others, as I didn’t really enjoy it very much. While it was good to learn more about a woman I previously knew very little about, I was left thinking that maybe there’s a good reason why not many novels have been written about Joan of Kent – her story just wasn’t interesting enough to sustain a novel of this length. Apart from her relationships with Thomas, William and Ned (I’m assuming this is what the ‘triple knot’ of the title refers to) other aspects of Joan’s life aren’t given much attention. As for Joan herself, I was surprised every time her age was mentioned as she didn’t feel like a child to me – in fact, she didn’t seem any older at the end of the book than she did at the beginning, even though many years had gone by!

There were some things that I did like, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to continue reading. The novel felt very well-researched and there were lots of details of fourteenth century life, both at court and away from it. The historical background is quite complex and it was sometimes difficult to untangle the relationships between various members of the royal family, especially in the first few chapters of the book, but I love reading about medieval history so I didn’t mind this. Overall, though, I was quite disappointed with this book – and as a side note, I really dislike the cover. It’s definitely not an image I would have chosen to represent the story and the time period!

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.