Reading Response: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali

Pomegranate Flowers

While working long hours last Fall, I slowly made my way through Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali. Set in 15th Century Spain, a family of Muslim landowners cope with Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista.

I am always excited to read a tale from Long Ago & Far Away. Unfortunately, this one was a struggle.

SPOILER ALERT!

For the first half of the book, it was difficult to know which character was the protagonist. Most of this portion is back story, or story within story. Who am I supposed to care about? I nearly put it down but hung in there because of what I had already invested. I love books set in other cultures and I accept that the target audience might be more accustom to the slower pace. So, thinking it could just be me, and not wanting to miss out, I slogged on.

Then things got more interesting and focused on two characters.

Then everyone died.

Except one fellow.

And the whole thing felt like a setup for the next phase of his life. A sequel?

The book is part of the Islam Quintet – a series by Mr. Ali. But the next book is not a sequel. It’s a story about Saladin – who is not a part of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. As far as I can tell, we don’t ever get back to this story.

The problem is structure and focus. I love the idea of the book, but it meanders and then ends. Clearly Mr. Ali wants us to care about the loss of a centuries-old culture. But it’s the lives of people which draw readers in and I couldn’t care about anyone because the story is everywhere at once and therefore emotionally nowhere.

I wanted so much to love it. I may be willing to try the others in the series simply because I want them to be good.

You can read Amazon reviews here.

And Goodread reviews here.

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More From Ancient Egypt: Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile

Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile, is an imaginative rendering of Cleopatra Selene’s formative tween years. Selene, daughter of the Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, was raised in the Roman household of Caesar Augustus after his triumph over her parents led them to commit suicide.

Rough start for a kid. But Dray’s Selene is no ordinary princess.

I usually resist anything suspect of girlishness but had picked up the book at the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 conference after hearing Ms. Dray talk about her work. Having recently read Wilbur Smith’s River God and The Quest, I figured I should get the last of my ancient Egypt stack taken care of. Although Lily of the Nile mostly takes place in Rome, the protagonist fits in my Egypt category.

I was pleasantly surprised at the unsentimental nature of Dray’s work and her ability to embed the historical context within an engaging story. I confess to an irresponsible lack of knowledge about the times and events so I was at Ms. Dray’s mercy for the facts but came away feeling better inform on all levels: people, events, culture and worldview.

Three areas of particular note:

1. Culture clash: I’d never given thought to how cold and rigid Roman culture must have felt to the conquered peoples. Selene’s Ptolemaic Egypt now seems the perfect foil to Augustus’ masculine authoritarianism.

And Dray’s representation of Isis worship in conflict with Roman religion was eye-opening. I’d always thought of Rome as primarily universalist – as long as the official gods were publicly honored. Dray makes it clear why the Romans might have seen Isis as a threat to their ordered social strata.

2. The Isis faith: Before reading Wilbur Smith’s stories mentioned above, I knew next to nothing about Isis or any of the Egyptian religions. In Lily of the Nile, Stephanie Dray does an excellent job of showing how the Isis religion may have contributed to the receptivity of Christianity and it’s eventual expression. Since Sunday School, I was taught that Rome’s Pax Romana paved the way for Christianity by facilitating the swift spread of ideas. I have some understanding of Hellenistic influence on the early church, and have a better-than-average awareness of other influences on the historical development of Christianity, but I was not aware of an active Egyptian religion contemporary with the birth of Jesus which preached love, appealed to the downtrodden and had a “Queen of Heaven” at the center. Okay, Isis also married her brother and included temple prostitution and magic in her cult. So there are plenty of differences. But after Dray’s portrayal of Isis it is hard to miss the universal tendency of human felt need for a Mother figure.

3. Dabbling in Fantasy: As with Wilbur Smith’s The Quest, Dray’s Lily of the Nile allows the magic of the worldview to manifest itself in the “real life” of the historical fiction. Maybe Smith’s The Quest prepared me for it here since I found it less disconcerting in Dray’s work. Possibly I was more jarred by it in The Quest because Smith’s earlier work, River God, with the same characters, did not blur the lines of genre. Suddenly, finding myself in a fantasy world threw me for several hundred pages. In reading reviews of The Quest and Lily of the Nile some readers are seriously put off by this genre mashup. I do not have a problem with it in principle – hey, we’re primarily telling fun stories here – as long as I feel prepared for it in some way. Since I don’t read back covers, synopses or reviews before reading, I take a bit of a risk when I venture in unaware. But I think that’s my own problem, not the writer’s, if there has been some hint beforehand.

I’d like to know what others think about this question. I love a story that goes deep into the worldview of the characters, but how do you feel about blurring the genre lines between historical fiction and fantasy? Historical fiction is fraught with plenty of debate already. (How much are you allowed to make up or change “history”?). I suspect some folks will want to keep the categories tight. I’m more inclined to let imaginations run wild as long as we all know we are reading fiction, in spite of my own experienced disconcertion. I do think the reader needs some kind of “heads up” though. How much of the supernatural should be there before labeling the book with a sub-genre?

Lily of the Nile: Recommended

If you would like to read story synopses and reviews for Lily of the Nile, check out the following links:

Goodreads

Amazon

I do plan to read Stephanie Dray’s next Cleopatra’s Daughter installment Song of the Nile.

But next up here is: Strange Gods by Annamaria Alfieri – Historical Mystery set in early 20th Century East Africa!

Wilber Smith’s River God and The Quest – Some Observations

In my efforts to expand my exposure to Long Ago & Far Away historical fiction, it was past time that I read some Wilbur Smith. His novels of ancient Egypt intrigued me so I picked up River God and ventured in – as always without reading the back cover, reviews, etc.

From the first page I knew that Smith was writing my kind of historical fiction: accent on adventure and mostly fictitious main characters allowing lots of room to play. I am observing that, the more locked to historical figures, the more difficult it is to craft a satisfying story. (Though the likes of Sharon Kay Penman and C. W. Gortner do it with aplomb). Call me low-brow but I like heroes and villains and adventure rooted in some other world than ours – historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. For historical fiction I want the context to be accurate but after that, I just want a good story.

So, River God: the most compelling aspect of this work is not so much the story as the voice of the main character. Our first-person hero, Taita, borders on the fantastical – no, is fantastical. He is a Renaissance Man in extreme: playwright, architect, administrator, military strategist, physician, mural painter, jeweler, hydraulic engineer, embalmer, musician – what have I missed? There are chariot battles, damsels in distress and adventures into sub-Saharan Africa. I know so little about the history or geography that, besides the epic exaggerations, I had to largely take Smith at his word on the basic facts. But it’s Taita’s voice that carries this book. His voice will stay with me when the story is forgotten.

Imagine my shock when I opened The Quest and found a third-person narrative, mostly in Taita’s point of view, but also from other characters and even much use of the omniscient. I had skipped two books in the series, so I knew there would be story I’d missed and I expected subtle changes in the author’s style but I grieved the loss of Taita’s voice for 100 pages before I finally let it go.

Also, by the time you reach The Quest, there has been a shift in genre from imaginative historical adventure to what is essentially a fantasy set in ancient Egypt/Africa. Taita is no longer simply skilled at everything. In the interim he has become a mage and a long-liver. Rather than the natural enemy of an invading force (River God) Taita is now pitted against a thousand year old witch.

I read fantasy so it should have been easy to make the transition, but it took me about as long to let the historicity go as it did to relinquish Taita’s voice. I do not want to be the one to pigeon-hole writers into strict genre distinctions but I really struggled with it. I like historical characters to take on as much of their own worldview as I can possibly comprehend, and the people of ancient Egypt would understand the world very differently from me, but that’s not what The Quest is. The Quest is fantasy – best to make that mental switch in your head before you start page one.

It would be interesting to read the interim books and observe when and how Smith makes this transition. I suspect it is gradual and would not have shocked me so if I had read the progression as written. I’d love to hear from folks who have read all four to learn if this is the case or if The Quest was a leap in style and or genre.

And, a warning about The Quest: this story is sexually visceral. For the most part, the sexuality is rooted in the themes of power, identity and transformation that run through both books, but there were bits that seemed gratuitous.

River God: Recommended – here is it’s review page on GoodReads (interesting that the reviews are mostly divided between love it/hate it. Few in between.)

The Quest: Recommended with caution – here’s it’s review page on GoodReads (also very divided opinions). And one from the Historical Novel Society.

 

 

 

Reading Response: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

I have mentioned before that I prefer to approach a book knowing only the genre and that it is recommended by someone aware of my interests. Reading back covers, reviews and synopses prevents me from experiencing the story the way the writer intended – a deliberate unfolding of information and events.

I began The Gift of Rain in the same manner. I knew it was an historical fiction set in WWII Penang, Malaysia – nothing more. I was excited about it because I spent four years across the Malacca Straights in Sumatra and made a brief visited to Penang while in the region. I suspected the book would have a Chinese focus because the author’s name indicates a Chinese heritage. (Malaysia is primarily Malay, Chinese and Indian.) I hoped though that there would be enough Malay environment to feed my hunger for something familiar but rare in literary resources.

Unfortunately for me, The Gift of Rain takes place at the crossroads of English, Chinese and Japanese cultures. Other than the tropical weather and interspersed Malay words and food, there is little of ethnic Malay culture here.

More importantly, this book is driven by a deep psychological study of a relationship between a charismatic, middle-aged Japanese man and a coming-of-age teenage boy. The writer’s fascination with mentorship through martial arts is clear but I just could not enter into it.

Early on, I broke my habit of not peeking. I was having trouble getting into the book so I did a quick, reluctant scan of the blurbs. That intrigued me enough to me keep me going but also grieved me because that foreknowledge broke the immediacy of the first person narrative. I didn’t like knowing what the writer had not already revealed. But it did add some tension – knowing what was coming, identifying the clues along the way – and it gave me hope that I would eventually be gripped. I never really was.

I couldn’t identify with the Japanese character’s seductive power over the protagonist. (To be clear, this is emotional and cultural seduction, not physical.) I understood it and it was intellectually believable, but it didn’t do it for me. That made it difficult to remain sympathetic to the main character as he became drawn into the Japanese atrocities. It’s hard to walk with a first person protagonist when you can’t identify with his motivations.

I had several other difficulties connecting with the story. Japanese martial arts figure prominently – no attraction for me. There was little action other than about 30 pages towards the end of the book. Without more emotional connection to the story I needed something to keep me turning the page. The Japanese horrors did make me angry. That was more reason for me put the book down.

 

But after all of that, I still intend to read Mr. Eng’s next book, The Garden of Evening Mists – another intersection of Chinese and Japanese culture. At least I am forewarned this time. I will read it because it is set in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia where I spent an important, rare vacation in 2002. It was there that the plot of my own novel came tumbling out of my brain. Something about the cool air and the tea. I am passionate about tea and this is a plantation area. And I remain hungry for anything set in the Malay environment. The only other English language fiction I have ever read placed there is Clavell’s King Rat. (Oh, WOW, what a story!) And it is, again, about the intersection of Westerners and their Japanese oppressors with nothing of the Malay context other than a few locations, words and food references. I will also read it Mr. Eng’s next book because he is a wonderful word crafter. I am well aware that my lack of passion for The Gift of Rain is all about me and not about his skills as a writer. I understand why this book has turned heads and won awards. He deserves the accolades. Few books can capture the heart of every reader.

This brings me once again to my decision not to write starred reviews. My purpose here is to describe my response and offer my observations in case they are helpful to someone else. I would love to interact with anyone who has read the book and had a different experience. Clearly this book is a great read to the right audience.

 

If you are interested in psychological character studies, Chinese Malay or Japanese culture or martial arts and beautiful word-crafting – recommended.

If you want Malay culture or action adventure – not so much.

 

Next up: River God – Wilbur Smith (This is my first Wilber Smith read – as usual, starting with zero info ahead of time. Already fun.)

Should Writers Write Reviews?

I might have already mentioned – I do not intend to provide formal/starred book reviews on this blog. I discussed this decision with several other writers and we felt reviewing novels within our own genre could be awkward and is best left to others.

Since reviews are crucial to a book’s/writer’s success, I decided some time ago I would only review a novel if I could give the work at least four stars. Simply completing and making available a mediocre novel is a heroic feat. But a three star review could discourage and damage a writer even if they had made great strides with that piece. I don’t want to be the one to bring down someone who has worked so hard.

For me to write a five star review, a book must be not only well crafted, but also memorable. I have read many entertaining and near flawless books only to forget them the next day. A five star book had better stick with me for days after the final page.

Until starting this blog those were my personal guidelines. In an era of grade inflation I’m a bit stingy with my “A”s (5 stars!). And this shows the subjectivity of reviews – who am I to withhold a five star review from a perfect, forgettable beach read?

As I begin to write I am naturally looking more closely at what I read, the same way my theatrical self notices the lighting at a live performance. I am learning from others, both techniques and pitfalls. To write a balanced review seems even more difficult now. So I have decided to refrain completely from starred reviews here, on Amazon or Goodreads, etc. I will, however, share my response to and observations about writers, books or passages that I find noteworthy. I may also link to the reviews of others. There are plenty of places to find them.

While thinking about this problem I stumbled across the New York Times Bookends column, “Are Novelists Too Wary of Criticizing Other Novelists?”. In it Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch describe the problem but also argue the benefits of novelists reviewing novels. I see their point but will stick with my decision and defer writing formal/starred reviews until such a time that I have earned a literary voice. (What a pleasant thought!)

I would love to hear how others handle this question. As a writer, are you comfortable writing Amazon, Goodreads, blog, etc. reviews of material in your own genre?