Book Review: ‘The Nostradamus Prophecies’ by Mario Reading

May 15, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

After struggling through the life of Madame Bovary, I needed something light and easy for my next book.  Enter The Nostradamus Prophecies by Mario Reading (not to be confused with The Nostradamus Prophecy by John S Powell or Theresa Breslin), one of the bargain books I picked up whilst travelling in Taiwan.

Now I will preface my review with the statement that I have nothing against Mario Reading.  I think he’s a good writer and very knowledgeable when it comes to Nostradamus.  I also read his blog and it’s actually great, and he seems like a nice guy.

But I have to call it like it is and say that The Nostradamus Prophecies was ultimately a disappointment.

I was initially drawn to the book because it looked like one of those Dan Brown-esque action thrillers with some interesting, semi-factual context thrown in (eg on the cover it says “An Ancient Secret; A Deadly Conspiracy); that and because I have always been deeply fascinated by Nostradamus and his prophecies.

It tells the story of a man called Adam Sabir, a writer who also happens to be a Nostradamus expert (and appears to be very closely based on Mario Reading himself).  Sabir responds to an advertisement that suggests someone has in his possession missing verses from Nostradamus’ prophecies, but ends up being framed for a crime and having both the French police and the henchman of a clandestine cult on his trail.  Doesn’t sound like the most original of plots, but I wasn’t exactly expecting one when I bought it.

The Nostradamus Prophecies had all the elements to be great.  An fascinating premise based around a legendary figure with a cult-like following around the world and prophecies that foretell the end of days.  An intellectual protagonist on the run.  A few interesting secondary and minor characters.  A dangerous, shadowy antagonist who will stop at nothing.

But somehow, none of those elements came together in the book.  My biggest gripe with The Nostradamus Prophecies is that Nostradamus and his prophecies don’t drive the storyline.  They become almost an afterthought during the tussle between Sabir and his chasers.  We don’t learn much about the life of Nostradamus, how he came to write these prophecies, or what they may contain (until the last couple of pages).  The Nostradamus prophecies become merely a plot device to get the ball rolling — there are perhaps one or two little riddles, but at no time do we feel like we are drawn into some deep mystery or that finding the prophecies would lead to some marvellous revelation.  And that’s a shame because it felt like there was enough there to make it a truly explosive and intelligent adventure in the vein of The Da Vinci Code.

As a result, The Nostradamus Prophecies runs through to the end never having that “wow” factor or that unputdownable feeling.  Yes, most of the short chapters end on a minor cliffhanger, but the tension just isn’t there.  I kept waiting for that moment where I would really get into it and want to keep reading deep into the night, but unfortunately it never came.

A big part of the problem lies with the antagonist, who has the silly nickname of the “eye-man”.  He is no doubt a dangerous and violent villain, but for some strange reason he instilled little fear in me.  Perhaps it was because his intelligence or craftiness never shone through.

The most fascinating part of The Nostradamus Prophecies ended up being the things we learn about France’s gypsies.  It’s an amazing world, an oft-misunderstood culture that most people would have trouble believing still exists today.  The story’s two main gypsy characters, Yola and Alexi, turn out to be the most interesting in the book.  So from that perspective at least, I can say the book did very well, but I wanted to read the book because of what I might learn about Nostradamus, not gypsies!

However, to be fair, I don’t think the misleading title or blurb is entirely Reading’s fault.  The original title was The 52, but it was changed for promotional purposes to reign in readers with a fascination for Nostradamus.  Sadly, if the novel was advertised as a story about gypsy culture, I don’t think it would be the international bestseller is has become today.

Reading The Nostradamus Prophecies gave me a new appreciation for The Da Vinci Code.  For all the criticism Dan Brown’s writing as received, he is a master at blending fact and fiction into an exciting story with break-neck pace.  So many people out there think it’s an easy thing to do and requires no great skill, but as the plethora of similar books in recent years has proven, it’s much harder than it looks.

So maybe I am being too harsh on The Nostradamus Prophecies.  After all, a poor book wouldn’t be translated into multiple languages and sell more than 150,000 copies (and rapidly increasing).  I just found out that The Nostradamus Prophecies is the first book in a Nostradamus “trilogy”, and the second book is being released in the UK in August 2010.  I hope this one will focus more on Nostradamus and really make us think about what his prophecies mean for the world in the next few years.

I think Reading’s biggest obstacle stems from the fact that he is such a knowledgeable expert on Nostradamus that it becomes hard for him to distill that knowledge into a story that is both educational and exciting for the casual reader.  Make us believe in the prophecies.  Teach us more about Nostradamus and the third Antichrist he foretells.  If he can do that then the second book could be a ripper.

I sincerely hope he succeeds.

2.5 stars out of 5!

Poetry and Sylvia Plath

May 15, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

 

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

 

[Update: A new Ted Hughes poem, ‘Last Letters’, has apparently been discovered.  It tells of the night of Plath’s death and looks like a cracker.  For more info and excerpts read my new post.]

Poetry

Admittedly, up until a few days ago, I was not a poetry kind of guy.  I’m still not, not by a long shot, but at least now I can finally see why some people swear by it, and why it’s actually very useful for a prose writer to read.

In my writing theory class, we recently studied poetics, and in particular Sylvia Plath and her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes.  Needless to say, I was initially less than thrilled with the prospect of reading pages and pages of poetry.

The last time I read any “proper” poetry was in high school, and it was not voluntary.  I was probably too young and lacked the maturity and appropriate grasp of the English language to appreciate the poems we studied.  Besides, most of the students that proclaimed their love for poetry during my school years tended to be the biggest knobs/snobs who thought they were better than everyone else (with the exception of a few genuine geniuses).

But anyway, now that I am older and slightly more mature (just a little), I must admit the Sylvia Plath poems blew me away, especially “Daddy” and “Lazy Lazarus” (the latter of which is perhaps her most famous poem).  I know it’s a horrible cliche, but there’s no other way to describe it — it’s powerful stuff.  Her choice of words, sometimes seemingly the simplest of words, somehow manages to conjure up images more striking and vivid than most prose I have read.  It just shows you don’t necessarily have to have a broad vocabulary or a thesaurus to come up with writing that connects emotionally with readers.

Sylvia Plath

Another thing we looked at in class was the issue of authorship — that is, to what extent does authorship affect the way we read a piece of writing?  Does our understanding of an author’s life and story influence how we perceive the work?

Well, in the case of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, the answer is definitely yes.  The more I looked into the life of Sylvia Plath, the more haunting her poems became.

Before last week, the only thing I knew about her was that she was a famous poet and there was a film made about her starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig a few years back.  Little did I know about the crazy melodrama behind her poetry that is more gripping than any movie or novel.

Plath was born in 1932 during the Great Depression and her father died when she was just eight following complications from an amputated foot (due to diabetes).  She suffered from depression and first tried to commit suicide at around age 20, though she was unsuccessful.  She was later awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University, where she met fellow poet Ted Hughes at a party.  Hughes apparently had a girlfriend at the time but Plath decided she had to have him, and they ended up marrying in 1956.

The two continued to write poetry, though Hughes did it full time while Plath also had to take care of all the chores of a housewife.  They had two children but the marriage was difficult, partly due to Hughes’ affair with Assia Wevill, a beautiful married woman who once rented their property.

Plath and Hughes separated in 1962 and she moved into a flat where WB Yeats once lived.  Plath committed suicide in 1963, at age 30, by gassing herself in the home oven while her infant children slept in the next room.

The best poems Plath wrote came just before her suicide, and you can really sense the pain and loathing in her writing.  Knowing Plath intended to kill herself when she wrote these poems really amplifies the raw emotion already contained in them.

But that’s not the end of the Plath saga.  Assia Wevill was apparently pregnant with Hughes’ child when Plath committed suicide, and she terminated the pregnancy soon after.  Wevill eventually gave birth to Hughes’ daughter in 1965 while she still married to her old husband.  However, the stigma of being the woman who broke up Plath’s marriage and Hughes’ later affairs with other women was too much for Wevill to handle, and in 1969, she killed their daughter then herself with the home oven — in the same way Sylvia Plath had seven years ago.

Ted Hughes didn’t comment on his marriage to Plath until almost 30 years later in 1998, when he released a poetry collection called Birthday Letters, which had some real whoppers too that seemed to be a direct response to his complex relationship with Plath. He died later that year from colon cancer.

Nicholas Hughes, the son Ted Hughes had with Sylvia Plath, committed suicide in March 2009 following a bout with depression.  He was 47 years old.

Tell me that isn’t one insane story!

Now thanks to YouTube, you can listen to Sylvia Plath recite her own poems, which, due to her powerful voice, makes them even more haunting.  I’d recommend listening to “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” (preferably with the text of the poems side by side)– they still give me the chills, every time.