Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye

I really have no idea why I haven’t read this book before now. The Far Pavilions has been one of my favourite books since I was a teenager, but for some reason it just never occurred to me to look into what else M.M. Kaye wrote until recently, when I read two of her Death In… mystery novels. When I saw that Cirtnecce was hosting a readalong of Shadow of the Moon this summer, it seemed the perfect opportunity to try another of Kaye’s historical novels in the hope that I would love it as much as The Far Pavilions!

Shadow of the Moon was originally published in 1957 and revised in 1979. Like The Far Pavilions, it is set in India, but at a slightly earlier time – before and during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Our heroine, Winter de Ballesteros, is born in Lucknow to an English mother and Spanish father. Orphaned by the age of six, Winter is sent to England to be raised by her great-grandfather, the Earl of Ware, but the country of her birth still holds a special place in her heart and she dreams of returning one day to the Gulab Mahal, the place she considers home.

Winter is eleven when she meets Conway Barton, who is visiting from India, and she is captivated by his good looks and his connection with the country she misses so much. Conway, with his eye on Winter’s fortune, suggests a betrothal, but it is not until six years later that Winter is old enough to go and join him in India for the wedding. Now Commissioner of Lunjore, Conway says that he is far too busy to escort his fiancée across the sea himself, so he sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, in his place. Unknown to Winter, however, her betrothed is no longer the man she thinks he is and has another reason for wanting to delay their meeting. Will the marriage take place or will Alex be able to change her mind during the long voyage to Lunjore?

There’s a romantic aspect to Shadow of the Moon, then, but the historical element is just as important. Cirtnecce has put together two excellent posts (here and here) describing the political landscape in India in 1857, how the country came to be ruled by the British East India Company and the factors leading to the rebellion. All of this is explored in a lot of depth throughout the novel, showing the same impressive level of research and the same understanding and sympathy for India and its people that I remember from The Far Pavilions.

The descriptions of India itself are wonderful and vivid. Whether she’s writing about the streets and bazaars of Lunjore or the relentless heat of summer and the relief of the monsoon, Kaye always chooses just the right words to bring the scene to life. The horrors and atrocities of the Mutiny are also described in vivid detail, although a relatively short portion of the novel is devoted to the actual rebellion and much more to the gradual building of tension, ending in the controversy over the new Enfield rifles which sparked the revolt (the British required the sepoys to use cartridges which were smeared with pork and beef fat, offensive to both Muslims and Hindus).

Lunjore, where much of the action is set, is a fictional district on the borders of Oudh (although it is portrayed so convincingly I had to check to see whether it was a real place or not) but the situation which unfolds there is similar to that being played out elsewhere in India. The British commanding officers are seemingly blind to what is going on around them, refusing to listen to stories of unrest amongst the Indian people and unwilling to doubt the loyalty of their armies. Alex Randall is one of the few exceptions – a man who thinks for himself and who tries to see things from the point of view of others. It’s so frustrating to watch his advice and warnings repeatedly falling on deaf ears as his superiors tell themselves he is worrying about nothing and stubbornly refuse to heed his words.

I found Alex an interesting, complex character, torn between his feelings for Winter and what he sees as his duties and responsibilities towards both the Company and the people of Lunjore. I was particularly intrigued by his relationship with Kishan Prasad – two men who are on ‘opposite sides’ but who each understand what the other is trying to do and under different circumstances might have been friends. With the bridging role he plays between the British and Indian perspectives, Alex often reminded me of Ashton Pelham-Martyn from The Far Pavilions. It took me a bit longer to warm to Winter – I was irritated by her infatuation with Conway and had to keep reminding myself that she was only seventeen!

Whether or not the romance captures your imagination, though, I think there should be something in this novel to interest most readers…the fascinating historical background, the colourful portrait of another time and place or maybe the adventure (plenty of daring escapes, disguises, ambushes and secret meetings by moonlight). I loved it and now I can’t wait to read M.M. Kaye’s other historical novel, Trade Wind, and the rest of the Death In series.

This is book 11/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Shadow of the Moon readalong

Just a quick post today to tell you about a readalong I’m going to be participating in this summer. I know I’ve mentioned before that The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye is one of my favourite historical fiction novels. I have also enjoyed two of her mysteries – Death in Kashmir and Death in Berlin – but for some reason still haven’t read her other historical novels, Shadow of the Moon and Trade Wind, despite having had a copy of the former on my shelf for a while now. When I saw that Cirtnecce of Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices and Cleo of Classical Carousel were planning a Shadow of the Moon readalong starting in June this seemed the perfect opportunity to finally pick up my copy and start reading.

Like The Far Pavilions, this book is set in India, a country Kaye really seemed to understand and wrote about beautifully. It was published in 1957, much earlier than The Far Pavilions (1978), so I’m curious to see what it is like and, from what I’ve heard about it, I’m anticipating another great read!

Witch Week Readalong: Something Wicked This Way Comes

witch-week-2016 I read this Ray Bradbury novel for a readalong as part of Witch Week, hosted by Lory at The Emerald City Book Review, but I’m sure I would have read it eventually anyway. It’s a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while – mainly, I have to confess, because I liked the title. It comes from a line spoken by one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes”. I didn’t really have any idea what the novel itself was about, so the Witch Week readalong seemed a good opportunity to find out!

Published in 1962, Something Wicked This Way Comes tells the story of two teenage boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who live in Green Town, Illinois. Not only are Will and Jim neighbours and best friends, they share another special bond: they were born just a few minutes apart, Will one minute before Halloween and Jim one minute after. They are inseparable, but they also have very different personalities – Will is the more sensible and cautious of the two, whereas Jim is more reckless and daring. The boys are thirteen years old as the novel opens one day in October when they have an encounter with a mysterious lightning rod salesman who warns that a storm is approaching.

something-wicked-this-way-comes That same night, a carnival – Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show – is heading towards Green Town. Will and Jim watch it arrive at three o’clock in the morning, excited that a carnival has come so late in the year. Their excitement quickly starts to fade, however, as strange things begin to happen in connection with the carnival and its sinister owners. When they spot Mr Cooger riding on a carousel while the music plays backwards, they realise they are witnessing something which shouldn’t have been possible, something which tells them that this is no ordinary carnival – and that their lives could be in danger.

I didn’t know what to expect from this novel, as it’s the first I’ve read by Ray Bradbury, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it. The writing style is unusual and took a while to get used to, but I found the use of language very intriguing. The streets are ‘footstepped’, for example, the rain ‘chuckles’ and ‘nuzzles’ at the windows, the people of the town ‘breathe back and forth’ to the carnival and laughter ‘walks on panther feet’. I’m not sure if I particularly liked the writing – the choice of words and the structure of the sentences are often so unconventional that I found it quite distracting – but it’s certainly one of the things I’ll remember most about this book.

I’ll also remember the philosophical musings of Charles Halloway, Will’s father:

So in sum, what are we? We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice, to laugh or cry. No other animal does either. We do, depending on the season and the need.

And the many wonderful descriptions of the library, where he works:

When rivers flooded, when fire fell from the sky, what a fine place the library was, the many rooms, the books. With luck, no one found you. How could they! – when you were off to Tanganyika in ’98, Cairo in 1812, Florence in 1492!?

Some of the readalong participants have discussed the fact that the two main characters (in the first half of the book, at least) are teenage boys and how the age we are when we first read the book could affect our ability to relate to the boys and their lives. Although I did still enjoy it anyway, I do wonder whether I might have had a different impression of it if I’d read it when I was younger. Later in the book, Charles Halloway begins to play a bigger part in the story, providing an adult perspective and bringing his experience, knowledge and wisdom to the fight against the evil forces of the carnival.

Good versus evil is obviously one of the major themes of the novel. A feeling of malice and danger hangs over the carnival from the moment it arrives and the people connected with it are both strange and sinister – particularly the blind Dust Witch who hovers over the boys’ houses in a hot air balloon in one of the creepiest scenes in the book. There are other themes too, though, such as life and death, age and the passing of time, the ties of friendship and the power of happiness and of love. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a fascinating read and one which left me with a lot to think about.

After the Sunday Papers #11

“She had read novels while other people perused the Sunday papers”
~ Mary Elizabeth Braddon, The Doctor’s Wife

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Time for one of my (very) occasional Sunday posts, I think!

War and Peace Readalong – May update

I’ll start with some brief thoughts on May’s reading for the War and Peace Readalong I’m participating in this year. In May, we read Book 2, Parts 3 and 4. I’m finding the book much easier to read now that we’re further into it and have had the opportunity to get to know the characters. However, I’ve also found that for some reason I have very little to say about this section of the book. I was pleased that there was no ‘war’ – though instead, we get a very long and detailed description of a hunt, which made me think I might actually have preferred a battle scene after all! It was good to spend more time with some of the female characters, especially Natasha and Sonya, whose storylines are starting to move forward now. And I still feel sorry for poor Princess Marya. I’m looking forward to reading Part 5 in June – and being halfway through the book!

Barbara Pym Reading Week

Barbara Pym Reading Week

Are you taking part in Barbara Pym Reading Week? I’ve never read anything by Pym before but so many of the bloggers I follow love her books that I knew it was time to try one. I’m reading Less Than Angels, which is maybe not the one I would ideally have chosen to begin with (I really wanted to read Excellent Women first) but it’s the only one I actually own. Anyway, I’m enjoying it so far and will post my thoughts on it later in the week.

New book arrivals

I haven’t bought any new books for a while, but I’ve received a few review copies. Paris is the one I’m most looking forward to reading as I love Edward Rutherfurd and have read all of his previous books. I don’t know much about the others (The Son by Michel Rostain, The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout and The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed) though I’ve read some very positive reviews of the first two.

I hope you’ve all had a good weekend! What are you planning to read this week?

War and Peace Readalong: March and April

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This year I’m taking part in a year-long group read of War and Peace, hosted by Amy and Iris. I had fallen behind with the reading in March (which is why I didn’t post an update for that month) but I managed to catch up again in April.

After struggling with February’s very war-dominated section I’m now enjoying the book again and I’m pleased that there does seem to be more balance between the war scenes and domestic scenes than I had feared at first! I also made things easier for myself this month by doing what I should probably have done from the beginning and printing off a character list to keep beside me while I read – although as I get further into the book I’m finding the number of characters less overwhelming and easier to keep track of anyway.

Book 1 Part 3

This was the section I really should have read in March. In the first half of this section we return to Russian society and rejoin some of the female characters we haven’t seen since Part 1, including Princess Helene, who marries Pierre, and poor Princess Marya, who turns down the chance of happiness for the sake of her father. In the second half we are with the army again, before and during the Battle of Austerlitz. Although I still don’t think the ‘war’ scenes of War and Peace are ever going to be my favourites, I found these easier to follow and understand than the battle scenes in Part 2 (see my comments from February). They still feel a bit chaotic and confusing, but that’s probably the point!

The most memorable parts of this section for me were Nikolai Rostov getting his first glimpse of Tsar Alexander, and Andrei Bolkonsky meeting his hero, Napoleon. The scene with Napoleon shows how we can build people up in our minds to be something they’re not, which can lead to disillusionment when we finally meet them and discover they are ordinary human beings like ourselves. In Rostov’s case the fact that he idolises the Tsar so much means that when he finally gets the chance to speak to him he is too awestruck to approach him and ends up regretting a missed opportunity.

Book 2 Parts 1 & 2

And this was April’s reading. There was a lot happening this month, including a birth, a death and a duel! With Nikolai Rostov coming home on leave, we are also reacquainted with the members of the Rostov household, including Natasha and Sonya.

From these two sections, I thought some of the scenes that stood out the most were the ones where Pierre, after leaving his wife, meets a mysterious stranger at the station and makes the decision to become a Freemason. There are a few chapters devoted to this part of the story and they had a slightly surreal, otherworldly feel in comparison to what we’ve read so far. I also thought Pierre’s discussions with Andrei were interesting, with Pierre explaining how much happier he has been since he stopped being selfish and started considering other people, and Andrei arguing that his actions could actually be making things worse rather than better.

Towards the end of this month’s reading we return to the ‘war’ when Rostov rejoins the army and feels the same joy on being welcomed back to his regiment that he felt on being welcomed home by his family. But this time, rather than facing chapter after chapter of military tactics and strategies (the reason I wasn’t enjoying the book in February) we are shown more of the human side of war, as the men begin to suffer from starvation and illness. Rostov experiences more of the disillusionment I mentioned earlier when he visits the wounded Denisov in a military hospital and is shocked by the way the patients are being treated.

I really enjoyed April’s two sections and found them surprisingly quick to get through. And we’re now 33% into the book, which is very encouraging!

War and Peace Readalong: February

warandpeace2013 This is my second monthly update on the readalong of War and Peace I’m participating in this year (hosted by Amy and Iris). Unlike last month, when I reported on how much I was enjoying the book and finding it difficult to put down, this month I had a very different experience.

Our goal for February was to read Book 1, Part 2. This is a very male-dominated section of the book, with none of the female characters we met in the first part (no Natasha or Sonya or Princesses Hélène or Liza). Instead we get to learn more about some of the men in the story including Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov, Dolokhov and General Kutuzov. I found it a bit easier to keep track of the characters this month but what I struggled with instead was the fact that Part 2 is spent entirely with the Russian army, on the battlefield and in the barracks. I think my complete lack of knowledge of this period of history and Russia’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars was a problem here, as well as the fact that I often find battle scenes and military tactics difficult to follow. Some background reading before I started this section would probably have been a good idea!

One thing that did make an impression on me was the sheer confusion and chaos of war and also the conflicts, arguments and fighting that went on in the ranks of the Russian army before they even faced the enemy. For example, there’s an episode where Nikolai’s commanding officer, Denisov, has some money stolen by a fellow soldier.

My favourite part of this month’s reading came towards the end of the section, when we rejoin Nikolai Rostov who has been wounded in battle. He can’t believe that anybody would actually want to kill him, a person everybody likes. Of course, none of that matters when you’re at war; you are simply another enemy soldier and no longer an individual.

“Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible.

It’s through the thoughts of characters like Rostov that Tolstoy succeeds in showing us the harsh reality of war, in contrast to the romantic ideas the characters may have had about it at first. Prince Andrei is another character who had notions of success and heroism but after he visits the Austrian government to report on a Russian victory and discovers that it is not appreciated by the Austrians he also becomes disillusioned with war.

Finally, this is just a minor point but was anyone else irritated by the way Denisov’s speech impediment was handled? I don’t know how it is represented in other translations but in the one I’m reading (Pevear & Volokhonsky) I thought the way the guttural r’s were written was very distracting and annoying.

“They don’t even give us time to dghrink!” replied Vaska Denisov. “They dghrag the ghregiment here and there all day…”

So, this month was less enjoyable for me than last month but I will keep reading, though I’m now a bit concerned that there’s going to be too much ‘war’ in War and Peace for me. The end of Part 2 couldn’t come quickly enough, but I look forward to seeing what Part 3 will bring.

For other participants’ thoughts, see the War and Peace February Check-In.

War and Peace Readalong: January

warandpeace2013
Throughout 2013 I am taking part in a readalong of Tolstoy’s War and Peace hosted by Amy of My Friend Amy and Iris of Iris on Books. Amy has posted some questions to help us discuss January’s reading.

Why are you reading War & Peace?

I read Anna Karenina years ago and enjoyed it so I’ve been meaning to read War and Peace for a long time but haven’t been able to find the motivation to actually get round to doing it. After taking part in a year-long group read of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson last year, when I saw that Amy and Iris were planning a readalong of War and Peace for 2013, I decided to join in with this one too. It seemed like a good opportunity to read another long novel and the reading schedule looked very manageable – this month we had to read Volume 1 Part 1 and I had no difficulty finishing it in time. In fact, I didn’t want to stop at the end of Part 1 and I admit to starting Part 2 before the end of January!

War and Peace What translation are you reading? Are you reading print, ebook, or audio?

I’m reading the Kindle version of the Vintage Classics edition. Opinions seem to be very divided on all of the available War and Peace translations so I wasn’t sure which one to choose. I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita a couple of years ago and was quite happy with it and as I remember disliking the Maude translation of Anna Karenina (though it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story too much) I decided it might be best to go with P&V again.

So far, is it different than you expected or the same?

I had high hopes for this book and I’m pleased to be able to say that I’ve loved what I’ve read so far, though it does have quite a different feel to Anna Karenina. I’ve found it surprisingly easy to read, though this first section has been mainly concerned with introducing us to the characters – I suspect I might be going to struggle with the military scenes as I don’t have much knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars or the French invasion of Russia.

The only problem I’ve had is that so much of the dialogue is in French and in this edition and format the English translations are in the notes at the end of each chapter – not very convenient with the Kindle (one of the negative things I’ve found with ebooks in general is that it’s not as easy to move backwards and forwards through the text as it is with a physical book).

Do you have a favorite character?

Not yet – I don’t feel I know any of them well enough to have favourites. And there are so many of them too! I’m still having trouble keeping them all straight (and especially remembering how each of them is related to the others) but I’m sure that will become easier as I progress through the book. The characters I’ve found most memorable so far are Pierre, Count Bezukhov’s illegitimate son, and Natasha, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the Rostovs. We haven’t seen much of Natasha yet but she seems a strong, lively character and I’m looking forward to getting to know her better.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to finishing?

The mistake I made with Clarissa last year was that I kept abandoning the book without picking it up for long periods of time which made it difficult to start reading again. I loved Clarissa while I was actually reading it, but as soon as I stopped and allowed a few weeks to pass, I lost all my enthusiasm for it. I don’t want that to happen with War and Peace so this time I really need to find a reading pace that I’m happy with. I’ll try to stick to the readalong schedule at first as it’s more fun to be reading and posting at the same time as other participants, but it could be that a different pace would suit me better. The important thing is that I continue to enjoy reading this book and don’t start to feel that it’s a chore, which is what happened with Clarissa.

I don’t really have much more to say about the book at this early stage but I’ll post another update at the end of February.