review: rebel queen

17 April 2015

book info:
on sale: now
copy from: publisher/MichelleMoran
review written: 4.4.15
originally published: March 3 2015
edition read: Touchstone (Simon and Schuster)

title: Rebel Queen
author: Michelle Moran

Rebel Queen opens up with an eighty-five year old woman being pressured by a young English journalist to recount the story of her past, and that of Queen Lakshmi of Jhansi, or the Rani of Jhansi. With scepticism, the woman begins her story, which starts with her as a young girl, Sita Bhosale of the village of Barwa Sagar. Confined in purdah, a practice in which a girl is not allowed to leave her house until she is married, Sita is educated by her father, a former soldier that once fought with the British (The East India Company) against Burma. Her unusual education, which includes Shakespeare and archery, allows her to save her family from poverty when she enlists to join the Rani of Jhansi's all-female personal guard, where she would be taken care of while earning a salary. However, when the British decide to take India, Queen Lakshmi refuses to back down without a fight. The fate of Sita, her family, and the Queen all rests with the politics of Jhansi and the ambitions of the British.

The release of Rebel Queen caught me by surprise. I'd not been keeping up with the book world with recent publications or upcoming releases. So when I was offered a copy to review, I almost cried. Not many historical fiction writers dare to touch India, and I can understand why. European history and Western culture are closely linked. Writing about the French Revolution or the American Civil War isn't that hard--but writing about a small region of the diverse and complex landscape of historical India is. Michelle Moran is fearless in her conquest of regions across the world--her books on Ancient Egypt were luxurious and Cleopatra's Daughter set in Rome and Egypt was deeply fascinating. If anyone could do it, it would be Michelle Moran. I love how Moran writes about famous historical figures from the viewpoint of a close friend or relative and not from the historical figure. It allows the freedom to explore a new character, while also tying closely to a famous person and the historical backdrop.

The novel takes place in a region of India called Jhansi. As I mentioned earlier, India is incredibly diverse and complex. Each individual state of India has its own language, customs, and way of life. When I heard about the book, I thought "Well, I'm Indian, so I'm going to have a lot of background info going in." I was wrong. While certain aspects were already known to me, like dresses and objects, and the italicised words indicated the phonetic pronunciation of a word from another language, everything else was new to me. My half-familiarity with some of the content made me laugh a bit. For instance, the description of churidars. I call it "kurta" or "salwar kameez" and occasionally "churidar." My parents use it all interchangeably. Here it is from page 43:

""Yes. And these churidars," he said, holding up a pair of green pants. I had never worn pants before. They were tight at the ankles and waist, but loose and airy in the legs for quick movement"
 The paint are typically called "pyjamas" which I know may sound weird, but it was weird for me to read "pants" It's clear to me that Moran did her research well! I couldn't find many cultural inaccuracies, if any at all, which is absolutely wonderful for readers who may not know much about India.

I enjoyed the first half of the book, which explored Sita's early childhood and her welcoming into the Royal Palace. Each character was introduced deliberately, and I could almost visualise the story unfolding before my eyes. Sita's character was refreshing: honest, strong, caring, and intelligent, she represents an ideal and a role-model for many young readers. If Rebel Queen is lacking in anything, it's certainly not great characters. However, I feel as if towards the end, the story rushed and got lost amidst historical events and a rapid change in way of life. Whereas earlier in the book where the story jumps over weeks or months did not seem to affect the pace of the story, it affected the second half of the story. This could just be because things changed very quickly in the historical scheme, but for the most part, it's a well-paced story.

Painstaking attention to detail with ekphrasis describing the exact outfit a character wears for long paragraphs can get boring for any reader. However, Moran's restraint in detailing architecture or market scenes makes for just the right amount of description for the reader to picture a scene without the dreadfully long paragraphs. The writing was easy to read, with the right combination of dialogue scene-setting, and transition.

I feel that something was missing from the book. I finished it, with this slew of analytical compliments as I detailed above, but something wasn't quite right. I didn't get emotionally involved into the story, or many of the characters. If something bad happened to one of them, I wouldn't feel a sense of loss, rather a "oh well" If anything could be changed, it would be better characterization. 

Overall, I think Rebel Queen is a fresh historical-fiction read that anyone would enjoy reading!

review: the song of achilles

25 February 2015

book info:
on sale: now
copy from: independent bookseller
pages: 378
review written: 25.2.2015
originally published: September 2011
edition read: Ecco

title: The Song of Achilles
author: Madeline Miller

Achilles, "the best of all the Greeks," son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful— irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods' wrath.

They are trained by the centaur Chiron in the arts of war and medicine, but when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, all the heroes of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the cruel Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice. (summary and image from goodreads)
Note: I'll try to give away as little as possible, but remember that this story is ancient so I'm not as careful about spoilers :)

It's been years since I've sat down in one sitting and finished an entire book. I've read The Aeneid and the Iliad and the Odyssey, but one story always fascinated me more than the others: Achilles and Patroclus. I've just finished this book, two minutes ago, and I am so filled with love for the story Ms Miller has written. Whereas The Iliad by Homer detailed the events and the names, Miller gives the story of war a more human taste.
She makes the wise decision of choosing to tell the story through Patroclus, a mortal, rather than through Achilles the demigod. I found Patroclus' narrative fresh and true to Homer's narrative of The Iliad. The writing is descriptive when it needs to be, but simple everywhere else. Simple in the best meaning of that word. The book is not laden with heavy words, rather with precise and sharp ones. Writing is best when one uses few words to achieve the best meaning as opposed to using lavish ones to reach that same meaning. Each word was chosen skilfully. This style made it easy for me to continue reading, and to keep a reader interested is a talent I admire as a reader myself. I've been in a terrible reading slump, but this book has revived me. With heavier literature, I'll pause to soak in the words, leave the book alone for a few days, and go back to it in the same routine. The amazing quality of this work allowed me to read it all in one go.
What I loved most was the romance between Achilles and Patroclus. When I read The Epic of Gilgamesh, I noted the homoerotic sub-context between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, while my teacher insisted it was just comradery. This denial of the possibility of homosexuality in ancient times in the literature world is only a little surprising. When the Western World rediscovered Ancient Greece and Rome, with excavataions and translated texts, they ignored and even tried to hide the evident suggestions of homosexuality in literature. However, the original words of Homer suggested such a relationship and the question will remain whether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. In The Song of Achilles, the romance was not like any other I've ever read. Their relationship is strong, so much so that spoken words were not as needed as they are today. I remembered watching Troy, starring Brad Pitt. The relationship was between two cousins, close friends and nothing more. I remembered watching Alexander, where the relationship between Alexander and Hephastion was a lovers one. They both grieved the loss of their partner: Achilles to Patroclus, and Alexander to Hephastion. Both grieved in incredibly similar ways. In The Iliad, Achilles laments Patroclus' death like Andromache grieves for Hector. I strongly believe that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. Therefore, I was incredibly thrilled to see it written out in The Song of Achilles. I'm absolutely in love with this very real and honest relationship that Miller has created. If you're a sucker for love stories, this is one to go with. A friend of mine, who's a homosexual, commented on the lack of LGBT representation in literature where the characters are NOT their sexuality. For instance, the "gay best friend" character, or the main character who's story is all about "coming out". I thought back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, A Separate Peace (by John Knowles) as the only examples I could think in which sexuality was not the central idea. I'm happy to add The Song of Achilles to that list. Gay people are not their sexuality, although by me labelling them as "gay" it seems like I'm ironically disproving my point. I digress.
I'm incredibly happy to have purchased this book so that I can keep it on my shelf along with my favourites. I'd recommend it to anyone! I can't find my image file for 6 umbrellas, so I'll stick these five umbrellas to attest to my love of this book.

book haul: classics

Hello readers!
 So as you all know, I'm going to be going to university in this fall. Which university, I'm not sure yet because I've applied through regular decision. As soon as word gets in and all the details are finalised, I'll let you all know! Well, I'm really interested in classical studies, including Greek and Roman architecture, philosophy, literature, and culture. Now, all of this "studying" I plan on doing in the next few months, completely on my own, would require spending a lot of time with a single book. Granted, the library didn't have any of the books I wanted to read. Therefore, I made a massive leap in actually buying books. It was under $20 and I thought I deserved something nice, as I've been working every single weekend the past few months. The money went to my savings account, no questions asked. A gift to myself is well deserved!

 It's snowing in Georgia and in this wintry weather, I'm at home (classes were cancelled at the university) drinking chai with these amazing books. Here they are:

Mythology-Edith Hamilton
This is one I've read already, but that I've wanted to read through for some light reading every once in a while. It's a bit heavy to open up my copy of the The Iliad or The Odyssey, and especially Plato's The Republic. Although I had my history books and my National Geographics to rely on, I craved the classical. This comprehensive collection of concise, yet deeply rich and fascinating, myths was an unforgettable. In my "Mythology" phase, and I'm pretty sure every reader's had one, this volume was one that I couldn't stop thinking about and now I'll actually own it!

Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives by Simon Goldhill
In my research of the "Classical" major, I found this book in the Cambridge University Classics page as a book that upcoming students would have to read in order to have a solid enough background in order to hold good conversation and understand the material throughout the course. My goal had once been to go to Oxford University (for some reason, Cambridge seemed like a Harvard type, stern and stiff, while Oxford seemed like the Brown University type, vibrant yet also intelligent). Unfortunately, with my financial circumstances where they are, and the difficult procedure international students must go through, I couldn't quite fit Oxford into my life. I hope that I can apply there for grad school, and just get my undergrad done here in the States. OFF TOPIC. And ON the topic of how the ancient world shapes our lives. Although I'm quite aware of the profound impact the ancient Roman and Greek societies had upon the shaping of our western world, I'm only able to grasp at vague ideas like "democracy." I'm especially looking forward to this one!

The Song of Achilles- Madeline Miller
I read a review of this on one of my most favourite book blogs, Tiny Library, a long time ago and resolved myself to read it. As I looked up books to read pertaining to the myths, including many Greek poems and plays, I thought I'd use it as an excuse to get this lovely fiction novel! It's the first book I'm going to read!

Thoughts? Suggestions? What are you all up to?

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