Meandering

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The story begins on a dark winter solstice night when “the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds”. Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is a tale which is part mystery, part ghost story, part folklore, it  is slow to start, sometimes sluggish and meanders all over like the river on the banks of which it is set. 

A country Inn on the banks of the Thames in the late nineteenth century draws people for the stories and folklore recounted by the proprietresses husband. The one story that particularly fascinates locals and visitors alike is that of the ghostly boatman who either helps those in trouble upon the river and will see them to the shore or, depending on whether their time has come, he helps deliver them across to the ‘other’ shore, Charon like. 

The mystery in the story begins with the badly injured and drenched stranger who, on solstice night suddenly appears at the inn with a seemingly dead little girl in his arms and collapses. No one can explain how the child later comes alive and to whom she belongs. Initially people at the inn think she is the daughter of the man who brought her in but then it turns out he is a photographer from Oxford who only found the girl in the river. She herself, cannot speak and is unable to say who she is. There is something mesmerising about the child that those who come in contact with her either want to take care of her or fondly think of their own children and want to go home and hold them. There are many, indeed, who want to claim the child and the story goes back and forth between the claimants.

The river as a setting is varied in all its moods and for the locals it’s moods are an ever present reality. Diane Setterfield’s descriptions are evocative of this and give a mystic quality to the Thames which is as much a character in the book as the numerous other characters. However, like the river, we felt the tale meanders a tad too much. Possibly intentionally, in keeping with the ebb and flow of the Thames, but for the reader it becomes tiresome.

We also could not decide whose story Setterfield really wanted to tell. As the book veers  from the inn, its inhabitants and customers, to the photographer who had found the child, the nurse who treats her and the various individuals and families who lay a claim to the little girl and includes all their back stories, the reader wonders where it is all going. The girl’s mystery slowly becomes a part of the folklore and legend on the river but she remains a hazy character. The realisation comes very late for the reader, that the girl is not the protagonist of the book but only the means by which everyone else’s story is told. After meandering through the myriad different aspects of the story, Setterfield abandons the reader to flounder midstream wondering where the tale has taken them.

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Diversity – A myth?

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 When an African American girl growing up on the south side of Chicago goes on to become the First Lady and her husband the first African American President of the United States, the world gets the impression that America is an inclusive country. The reaction to the Presidency from some quarters, subsequent events and even Michelle Obama’s autobiography, go some way in dispelling that myth.

 The title of Michelle Obama’s book – Becoming, applies to her becoming different things at different stages in her life – a student, a lawyer, a wife, a working mother and then the challenge of becoming a First Lady. Throughout the book the reader is subtly given the impression that the title also refers to the pressure that women always feel – whether what they do is ‘becoming’ or not. The title is obviously a play on the two meanings. In Michelle Obama’s case this awareness of appropriateness is further intensified by being African American and because of the scrutiny she is held up to  at college, work and in the White House.

 Obama talks a lot about being African American and being treated with a different yardstick and also the strange dichotomy of her trip to Africa and feeling entirely out of place over there. For us this was interesting because we have seen this happening to with first and second generation immigrants who feel as if they are neither here nor there. For a people to continue feeling this way a few hundred years down the line surely says something about how closed society can be and how people rarely overcome conditioning.

 Obama’s determination and ability to be her own self at all times is admirable as is her ability to not get carried away or allow her children to get carried away by the privileged position they found themselves in. Hardly surprising considering she was brought up by practical, grounded parents. In her person and achievements she proves the theory that no matter what economic disadvantages one may grow up with, all that is ultimately required is a supportive and stable family to allow one to ‘become’. Obama is also very aware of being a woman in a man’s world,  something all working women realise early on but she is open and forthright about the difficulties faced by her. Throughout the book she talks about the sense of responsibility she feels towards those around her, her position and to the nation as a whole. However she does not let this sense of responsibility define her.

 More interesting are Michelle Obama’s insights about her husband which makes the reader feel he couldn’t but have become President considering what an unusual man he is. The candour in the book comes across to the reader as well as the fact that the book is written simply and is extremely readable. She is able to succinctly and simply put forward what she has to say which proves she must have been a good lawyer despite her having decided that the profession was not for her.

 There was enough hype and giddy promotion that came along with the book, unsurprising as Michelle Obama has been one of the more popular First Ladies. But one can appreciate the popularity in light of the fact that one of the most difficult things she has done was not becoming First Lady but in watching her and her husband’s legacy be dismantled but continuing to be dignified despite it.

Race relations

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Dragons have fascinated the human mind from time immemorial. There’s no denying that. Whether they are to be slayed or sought out to provide sage counsel or  sought out for their hoards of gold, dragon’s and their stories are bound to capture the imagination. 

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is a slightly different dragon story. Seraphina the protagonist has a big secret, she is herself a half dragon but in human form and has scales on parts of her body. She thinks she is alone. On her world dragons and humans had battled for centuries but finally a peace was brokered and dragons who could take human form were allowed to enter human countries as such. The peace is tenuous at best because of people’s suspicion and the nature of dragons who are a bit Vulcan like in their lack of emotion and dependence on logic. They think in ‘higher’ maths! The dragons have moved away from their gold hordes and now instead horde knowledge and books. Some of them live in human cities but have to be monitored by other dragons to ensure they do not become too human like. The humans in turn think they are too dragon like, so are always wary of them.

Though most people want to get on with their lives and want peace, the malcontents on either side, as always, are looking for opportunities to use the suspicion and brew trouble. Seraphina finds herself caught in the midst of this with her unique viewpoint from both sides and seeks to find her own unique place in a world where she neither belongs nor can be accepted on either side.

In its own way this is a book for our times when we are constantly struggling with accepting the ‘other’ and identity is restricted by the familiar and by conditioning. Suspicion is rife and even small differences are used to fan resentment. Very few are willing to accept anything beyond their own comfort zone. Though Seraphina is a fantasy set in a different world, it could well stand as an allegory for race relations in this one. Ultimately the realisation has to come that there is good and bad, well intentioned and ill willed creatures on all sides. People will be people, no matter what form they come in.

Middling

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The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air book 2) by Holly Black – A review in two parts.

Before reading the book(but after reading one sneak preview chapter:

We could not wait for the book to be published; daily counting down the waiting list in the library. The preview chapter was fabulous and took off from the end of The Cruel Prince (read our review here). Jude, through political machinations has become the power behind the faerie throne as the king’s seneschal. Cardan, as the king who has to obey Jude for a year and a day, spends his time enjoying the other perks of wearing the crown while Jude does the actual ruling. The whole of faerie is rejoicing and in a festive mood. We couldn’t wait to see what Jude, a human, would do to shape faerie. Also, having read the short novella – The Lost Sisters, we were looking forward to Jude and her twin sister Taryn joining forces and giving the fairies a tough time on behalf of humans. The excitement built up over time with speculation as to whether the book would tie in with the standalone book The Darkest Part of the Forest (our review here). We looked forward to Jude continuing to manipulate things so that her foster younger brother Oak could enjoy a childhood before he ascending the throne of fairie, of Jude kicking ass along with her group of spies known as the Court of Shadows and overcoming all obstacles in her path.

Having read the book:

Caught by the typical middle book syndrome, the story goes nowhere and in fact rehashes a lot of the issues from the first book. Taryn is still Taryn and Jude is less Jude. She is still trying to deal with her foster father issues; the fairie general Madoc is still trying to control her and despite everything she is still pleased with even a hint of approval coming from him. Cardan is still wishy washy except for maybe right at the very end. The book starts with a prologue which sets a very different tone from the preview chapter that had been provided to whet the readers’ appetites. The fairie half sister Viv was a more supportive and stronger personality in the previous book. In fact everyone felt ‘less’ in this book. The reader is constantly reminded that Jude is eighteen and inexperienced and dealing with fairies who have been around for centuries. The constant refrain of power being easy to get and difficult to hold onto becomes tedious. The only thing that is accomplished is that the reader is made aware of how alone Jude is. Even her flashes of brilliance and her ability to lie, unlike the fairies, do not manage to save the book from being anything other than a middling middle book setting up for the grand showdown in book three.

  We are aware that a lot of people will not agree with us and the book does have five stars on Goodreads but it is what it is. We also got the feeling that perhaps Holly Black had been rushed through the writing of the second book by her publishers to capitalise on the success of the first one in the series. We did however love the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter and elsewhere in the book.

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Readers and Borrowers

D846F71D-683E-4EFF-B12A-9C4D5C018787  There is no doubt that we love reading and love books. Due to space constraints and lack of dusting motivation, we prefer to buy only those books which we know we will read again and again. Besides, we like the idea of supporting libraries as we believe they are intrinsic to the reader’s life and like the concept of having them around. However the e book lending libraries have been a game changer. The reader is now not only able to see where they are in the waiting list for a book and how many copies are in the library but also the approximate time frame when the book is likely to be available for download.  This new way of borrowing gives one quite a perspective and insight into the pattern of book borrowing. In itself it could well become a study into the reading habits of types of people and genres of books borrowed.

  The borrowing behaviour has certainly caught our attention and interest. While waiting for much in demand books, one is bound to speculate as to why it is taking so long! So, after a suitable amount of mulling over, we have figured there are three kinds of readers (feel free to add more categories) – the reader, the avid reader and then just the plain borrower who may or may not read what they have borrowed.

  You also have roughly three categories of books – the ‘ooh I am reading it’ books, those are books that are popular for having won a big prize, or the biography of a famous person or the ‘in fashion’ self-help book, this category can sometime also include the latest bestseller. Then you have the ‘I am so smart I am reading…’ book which comprises of either literary fiction (read highbrow) or the Nasim Nicholas Taleb type of books. The final category are the genre fictions like fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries and thrillers.

 It has been our experience that the genre fiction readers are the avid readers who believe a bookmark is an insult, food splashes on the book/e-reader and finger print smudges are all part of the deal. They will read through the night (under the bed covers and with a torch if necessary), while eating, riding the train and even surreptitiously at a meeting if they can manage it. What comes next rules their mind. These are the good souls who devour the books as soon as they get them and promptly return them to the library to make space for the next book. Waiting for a genre fiction book is very nice because you can see the waiting list numbers falling day by day. We have been waiting to read The Wicked King by Holly Black, the second book in a fantasy trilogy, and it’s a pleasure to wake up each morning and check how much closer we are to getting the book.

 The ‘readers’ are the people who like to read and enjoy reading but do not necessarily have the time to read and are not the persons who will go to any lengths to make the time. They like reading classy stuff or informational books, literary fiction if it is fiction or in non fiction it will be Malcolm Gladwell, Naseem Nicholas Taleb, Yuval Noah Harari or Carlo Rovelli. They are not interested in grabbing these books as soon as they are published and may even have heard of them some years down the line. Once they have the book they will sit on it for ages. To be fair these are also not the kind of books which can be read in one sitting and the reader is required to ponder over whatever the author is saying or how beautifully the sentences are constructed. These books have long waiting lists in the library but few copies and take forever to come to you even if they have been around for a few years. We recently put in a request for ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles published in 2016, a book with excellent reviews, with old world charm and written by a known author. It also has a waiting list longer than one’s arm. We will be lucky if we get to see the book before the end of the year.

 The final category is the ‘borrower’ or the ‘buyer’. These people do not read. They like to carry books around with them and tell people what they are reading but rarely do they move beyond the first few chapters. They will hold on to the book until the next ‘happening’ book or award winner is out and then move onto that. These are the books which are next to impossible to get hold of from the library. People just do not return them! We put our name on the waiting list for Becoming by Michelle Obama and even with a total of seventy(!) copies in the library we are nowhere worth mentioning on the list.

 As a result of all this waiting and ruminating we feel compelled to give self serving advice to ‘the borrowers’ – Don’t be pretentious. Most people don’t bother reading these days in any case and will not be too impressed by your claims of reading the ‘in’ thing. Those who do read are able to pick up the subtle signs of a non reader so you can forget about impressing them. Do others a favour, return the book or get off the holding list, read the  Wikipedia summary, a couple of reviews on Goodreads and find some quotes that should be enough to suitably impress your book club. 

Another ghostly tale

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  Who doesn’t like ghost stories? The kind that send chills up the spine, makes one’s hair stand on end and look askance at dark corners? The cover of City of Ghosts is certainly enough to send one hunkering under the blankets but then, is the tale itself scary enough to do all those things?

  Cassidy Blake is 12, has parents who write books about the paranormal –  her father to debunk and her mother as a believer. What her parents don’t realise is that Cassidy can actually see ghosts and when they tolerate her talking to her invisible friend Jacob they do not realise that he is actually a ghost – a young, comic reading, torn jeans and superhero t-shirt wearing, ghost.

  Victoria Schwab’s City of Ghosts is set up as a series. Cassidy’s parents are making a TV series about ghostly legends in different cities across the world. In this book, Cassidy, her vintage camera, parents, their cat Grim and Jacob travel to Edinburgh to film the first episode of the series. Cassidy is excited to be in Edinburgh, not only the birth place of the Harry Potter books  but a number of ghostly legends that she gets drawn into as she can not only see ghosts but also travel through the veil that divides this world from the ghostly one. She meets Lara, another young girl with similar abilities who explains to Cassidy the reason/purpose for being able to see the ghosts. But Lara is also very suspicious of Jacob and keeps warning Cassidy about him, thus expanding the mystery of his hanging around Cassidy. Truthfully speaking, we felt Lara was perhaps the most interesting character in the book and had some depth to her whereas the others only have potential.

  While written for children the book has its creepy elements, more so if seen from a parent’s point of view. Though readable and interesting  as stories go with flashes of V.E. Schwab’s flair for storytelling, the book is simplistic. Accept it, when it comes to ghostly stories for young people, the Lockwood series by Jonathan Stroud is now the standard. City of Ghosts does not manage to meet it. 

For the love of the alphabet

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 A tiny island off the coast of South Carolina is an independent county named after one Nevin Nollop, its founding father. Nollop is credited by the island with having composed the pangram – a sentence containing every letter of the alphabet – ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy fox’ – well known to people around the world who are learning to type. The idyllic island society has devoted itself to a liberal arts education and language is considered a national art form. Never very technically advanced, the country is even phasing out the few things it has, like the telephone.

  Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn is a quirky little epistolary novel written in the form of letters by the eponymous Ella Minnow Pea, her family and a few other islanders. The letters chronicle the events that take place after the lettered tiles which spell out the ‘quick brown fox’ pangram  on top of the town cenotaph, start to fall. The exceptionally mad town council sees this as a diktat from Nollop in his after life, telling the people of the island to stop using those letters of the alphabet in their vocabulary. As the cement binding the tiles decays and the tiles fall off at an alarming rate, the council proceeds to ban those letters and the words which include them, whether in writing or in speech. During the course of the book the letters written by the island people become lipograms since the words are selected in order to avoid the banned letters of the alphabet. Together with the reduction of the alphabet, the society on the island decays into chaos and authoritarianism. 

  We did wonder if Mark Dunn sat with a computer program to help him come up with the lipogram missives of the islanders or whether he did it manually. But fascinating either way. The language of the epistles is beautiful as behoves a society steeped in the liberal arts and letter writing. It is rare to come across a book with such wonderful vocabulary.

  Though the ending is predictable, the degeneration of the island into a dystopian state makes an engrossing read. All credit to Mark Dunn for coming up with this mind bogglingly original idea, it is totally unlike anything we have read before. And we read a lot.