Overcooked

One thing the pandemic and lockdowns have done is to ensure that people, who would normally never spend more time in the kitchen beyond what is absolutely necessary, have discovered the joys of baking, making, stirring, roasting, kneading, pickling and what have you. Every other person you speak to is doing or has done an online sourdough baking course which is the new ‘it’ thing. We can only guess that all the kneading helps with managing the frustration of being home bound with the entire family. If the house is overflowing with people, might as well have it overflow with cupcakes, cookies and brownies.

Sad ovens which had been relegated to some dusty corner of the kitchen, where they were being used to store pans and mugs, have been brought to the fore and are seeing their hey day. People who never use more than one or two burners on their cooking range are suddenly using all four at a time. As you walk up the stairs of an apartment building, each floor will waft out it’s gastronomical delights. Instagram accounts that would, perhaps once a month, post a sad looking flower or a vague sunset now have daily postings of the most elaborate cakes with floral icing, not to mention those sinful chocolatey concoctions that make you want to dive straight into the picture. 

There is one person we know who has pickled with a vengeance. Anything and everything has been turned into a pickle. As if somehow all the pickling will stave off COVID 19. Then there are those who have set up DIY wine making units in their balconies, making wine with things like bitter gourd and chillies. And all this because of You Tube and the numerous cooking videos that can be found on it – providing recipes and know how for all. One feels constantly full just hearing about all the cooking and baking going around. Not only people but even the Bay of Bengal seems to have gotten in on the act and is cooking up depressions and cyclones one after the other.

We, however, have spent the last six months wondering why the bug has not bitten us. Typically we are still just trying to read and not doing much else. And then there are people, like a friend’s mother, who watch all the cooking and baking You Tube videos for entertainment and then declare they don’t need to try any of it because their recipes are better anyway.

The title is good

Sometimes readers pick up books because the title sounds nice. Perhaps at times writers write books because they become enamoured of the title that pops into their head and they end up writing the book around it. This seems to be very much the case with Garth Nix’s The Left-handed Booksellers of London. We don’t deny that the lack of enthusiasm could also be our fault – we should not have read back to back Garth Nix books. And we have said all that we have to say. 

For those of you who are still interested, the story overlaps new Britain with old Britain and the spirits and creatures of streams, woods and mountains are still around in some form or the other. There are those who actively invade modern space and those who lie dormant and some who have just faded away so that their powers are negligible. The booksellers, both right handed and left handed, guard the boundaries between the old and the new worlds. Susan Arkshaw (There is that name again. What is it with all the Susans in fantasy literature?) an eighteen year old art student moves to London and finds the old world has snapped up to grab her. Escaping, Susan finds herself embroiled with the booksellers, in particular a cross dressing young bookseller called Merlin and his twin sister Vivian. The three of them set out to solve the mystery of Susan’s attraction to the old world by looking for her father, who she has never met, who’s identity could provide them with answers. 

The premise of the book was absolutely great, a story set in 1980’s era London, where the old world, both the benevolent and the hostile, keep seeping in. The idea of the booksellers being the only people aware of the old world (along with a special branch of the Metropolitan police who work in conjunction with the booksellers) is also nice. But somewhere, in the midst of a lot of activity, nothing much happens. Susan is two dimensional, Merlin tries too hard to be Howl or Chrestomanci but fails miserably and in the process neither one is appealing. 

A book that adds more value to the bookshelf than to the reading experience. Somehow it felt incomplete, more like a first draft of the story line than the work of an author with a wealth of experience. 

Too little story

This book is obviously set in an alternate universe because it is ideally inclusive in every way. No one in the book blinks at women cardinals, persons of colour in positions of power and the hot blooded Musketeers having a number of women in their ranks. Also the only hint of romance in the story is in a gay relationship. 

The majority of Angel Mage by Garth Nix is set in an alternate France like country. Each country in this world has a guardian archangel with other angels of differing powers under the archangel. Those with mage powers can summon the angels, with the use of icons, for their own purposes. In the country of Ystara, around 150 years back, the archangel Pallenial was subverted by the angel mage Lilliath, leading to magic either turning Ystarans into beasts or giving them the ash plague. After this, Pallenial disappeared leaving the Ystarans without any answers regarding what had happened and helpless without recourse to angelic magic. 

The surviving Ystarans had to flee to neighbouring countries before they sealed their borders, fearing the spread of the ash plague. The Ystarans ended up becoming reviled and second class citizens in these countries, waiting to be rescued by Lilliiath who was supposed to be reborn and lead them back to their land. In Sarance (the alternative France) there are four young people who are key to the revival of Pallenial and somehow connected to Lilliath. And thus the story continues.

The premise is interesting and the magic system new and unusual. But the problem lies with the pace. By the time an accord is reached between the factions of the Queen’s Musketeers, the King’s guards and the Cardinal’s Pursuivants, to lead an expedition to Yastara and the story picks up, it is over within the next few chapters. There is adventure, intrigue, politics, the interesting magic system (although a bit dubious when it comes to forcefully summoning angels to carry out mundane tasks) but the world building takes far too long and we spent more than two thirds of the book wondering where it was all headed. A certain amount of boredom set in. Had it been any other author, we might even have given up part of the way through but because it was Garth Nix, we kept reading, expecting more from the story. Not a patch on the Sabriel and the Old Kingdom Series by Nix.

Stabbed


Seriously how much is 2020 going to land on us? How long are we supposed to put up with all the nonsense coming our way this year? The misery just keeps piling on.

When BBC America first announced the on screen adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Watch series, about the Discworld night watch, our natural tendency initially was to be sceptical. But we saw some of the cast photos and even though Lord Vetinari was a woman, we did our best to keep an open mind and wished them all the best. After all, a very decent and enjoyable adaptation of Sir Terry and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens had us feeling encouraged. 

But hell fire and damnation – who let a bunch of idiots anywhere near Sir Terry’s books? 2020 strikes again! We watched the trailer of The Watch, the worst, miserable travesty ever, and decided that someone had it in for Sir Terry’s reputation and/or his readers. This is a perfect example of how to take a beloved series of books, the universe it is about, characters with amazing depth and stories addressing all types of issues faced by the real world and then turn it into an idiotic mish mash of nonsense and half baked ideas. All probably done by people who have most likely never gone near any of the 41 Discworld books. Like Granny Weatherwax said “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but it is not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.” The trailer leads one to think that the TV series has been made by a bunch of ignoramuses. For a series of books which boast of 40 million readers across the world and have been translated into 37 languages, any televisation should be done only by three categories of people – 1) By the novelist, 2) by a fan and 3) by someone who has at least read the books and made an attempt to absorb their ethos. This was so bad that we initially confused Vimes for the bumbling Rhincewind!

It is almost as if a bunch of crazies sat down and decided that it would be a good idea to replace Sir Terry’s brilliant imagination and humour with their own limited imagination and slapstick geared towards making money. In Moving Pictures, which was the Discworld satire on the movie industry, the producers of said pictures were very aptly described by Sir T P – “They want dancing girls! They want thrills! They want elephants! They want people falling off roofs! They want dreams! The world is full of little people with big dreams!

Watching the trailer, we had a very palpable physical sensation of being stabbed. The best thing about the trailer is the comments on YouTube. The readers are not happy.

‘It looks worse than you can imagine!’
‘I can imagine some pretty bad things!’
‘That’s why I said worse!’ (Moving Pictures)

How did this happen? And why was it allowed. Maybe because it is BBC America but we think we are going to ban BBC wholesale and remove the app from our phones.

Woe betide those who have done this to the devoted readers of Sir Terry. May they forever have to eat Dibbler’s suspect pies. And we are just going to stick to re reading the books.

A quest for magic


The fictional country of Orisha is set in a parallel Africa, where magic has been wiped out and the Maji, the people who wielded it have been decimated by their autocratic ruler. A story about adventure, about re connecting with who you are and your legacy, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is the first book in the Legacy of Orisha trilogy. 

Zelie, by virtue of her tell tale white hair, would have grown up to become a maji before the disappearance of magic. Instead she is one of the reviled ‘maggots’ – people who carry the potential of being magic bearers. Zelie, along with her brother Tzain and Amar, is sent on a journey to re connect with the Gods and attempt to re ignite the magic in the world, while collecting the necessary ingredients for it along the way.

As YA fantasy goes the book is initially fast paced and involving. The concept of different kinds of magic being connected to different gods and being bestowed on humankind by them, makes for interesting reading. Tomi Adeyemi is a Nigerian American author who, we are told, has drawn inspiration from West African mythology for her story, which is probably why the premise of the book seemed a little different and fresh to us. For the most part the plot of the book kept us engaged. The characters however are another story. They were too adolescent in their behaviour for the kind of responsibilities placed on them. They come across as too indecisive and inconsistent for us as readers to rely on them to take us safely through the narrative.

What irritated us most about the book was the need to fit in a fight to the death, gladiator style contest in the plot that has already been done, well… to death, by The Goblet of fire and The Hunger Games. Enough already. It is not a compulsory element for YA fantasy to be complete. It’s almost as if creative writing courses have made it a part of the engaging plot checklist or something.

Children of Blood and Bone while starting off very promisingly, for us ended up in the category of – a readable book without being a must read.

Escaping a pandemic

Edge of the seat! What’s that? No thank you. 

Exciting twists and turns? – We’ll do without, thanks. 

Dystopian? – Not in a million years. 

Race against time – Give us a break! 

The usual fantasy blurbs are just too off putting for us right now. And any book that is compared to the Hunger Games or a dystopian fantasy where the world’s population has been decimated by a ravaging disease, needs to be flung with all the force at one’s command.

The mind of a fantasy reader is usually hyper flexible, it can bend, warp, accept alternate realities, deal with magic, different worlds and an entire gamut of non human characters. There is very little that feels strange or unacceptable to such a reader in the normal course of things. We have heard people say that they can’t bear Harry Potter because the books seem so unreal. Whereas we feel that Harry Potter verges on magical realism. Because of its ability to transport the reader to another world, in times of extreme stress, fantasy offers escapism of the sort that cannot be offered by any other type of fiction

But then there is stress and there is pandemic stress. The latter, we have come to realise is quite overpowering. The usual capability of the reader’s mind to circumnavigate stressful situations and embed itself in the book just does not seem to work. We suddenly find that books which we would normally devour and finish off in a couple of days are being kept aside every time one of the main characters faces a difficulty. As a result, our reading habits have changed dramatically. The ability to read at a stretch and enjoy the adventure in the story seems to have deserted us. We want to read peaceful stuff these days. Books about gardening do well, but even there, when they start mentioning aphids and spider mites, we switch off. We need our books to provide the comfort and certainty that the world does not have right now. Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Uncertainty does not prevail as far as reading habits are concerned. 

We did however find one or two books which were pretty much perfect for these times. The Sorcery and Cecilia series by Particia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer is one such series – a cross between a Regency novel and a fantasy P G Wodehouse, being populated with enough managing aunts who are definitely not gentlemen. The books are light hearted with the just the right amount of absurd to keep one relaxed. Re reads of the Chrestomanci series and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones also work as does the Belgariad series by David Eddings and any of the Terry Pratchett’s.

With the stress of the pandemic combined with the absolute lack of leadership in the world right now, the reading mind craves a Merlin or a Gandalf or a Dumbledore, a Belgarath and Polgara. People who know what they are doing and can take charge of the story, enabling the reader to sit back and know that things will work out. 

The mind needs stories that comfort and undulate gently through summer landscapes or winters in front of large fire places, with hot chocolate and nothing lurking in the shadows. In fact, just cancel the shadows altogether. Let there be light. 

Looking both ways

Now that travel for the most part is out of the question, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E Harrow is the perfect book to read for those hankering to get away. This is a book about journeys, the need to travel and discover, about places, cultures, the magic of doors and also about finding your way home. In another sense, The Ten Thousand Doors is a book about books and the power of words – “I mean that words in that world can sometimes rise from their ink and cotton cradles and reshape the nature of reality.”

January Scaller is a semi orphan girl (she has no mother and her father is constantly travelling to far off places for work), growing up in New England at the turn of the 20th Century. She is a ward of her father’s employer, Mr. Locke who is a collector of artefacts and lives in a house bursting with them. January’s life takes a strange turn when she finds a book in an antique chest and soon afterwards she is told that her father has disappeared.

This is also a book about the power of stories and the power of belief in oneself despite being faced with difficulties and disadvantages. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles thrown January’s way because of her race (which is mixed) and her penury are fought with friends and words. This is despite the fact that those with the power of money and a certain colour can open doors for themselves and also close those doors for others. The story unfolds in different layers, full of magic and mystery. The prose is beautiful and the book is very cleverly crafted. Normally it’s very difficult to take a reader along without telling them too much and keeping back what they must know till just the right point in the narrative – Harrow manages to do just that and rather wonderfully.

A true fantasy can seem more real than reality to the reader and this is certainly one of them, the reader being carried along by sheer story telling power, without raising too many questions. We know we are not saying much about the story over here, and have really had to stop ourselves from giving anything away, because the book really needs to be discovered and we wouldn’t want to ruin it for anyone. 

Colourful gossip

Who ever knew that colours led such interesting lives filled with magic, mayhem, murder and gossip? The Secret Lives of Colour ( or ‘Color’ if you speak American) by Kassia St.Claire is a book that one can return to again and again as there are little snippets of information, anecdotes and gossip to keep one entertained and involved. The reader picks up the book expecting a sort of encyclopedia of colours and instead gets a detailed and lengthy page 3 chit chat about colours and what they have been up to through the ages; their origins, uses, chemical compositions and shades. St. Claire mentions 75 shades in her book with interesting facts about each and their (colourful) history. The book even lists eight shades of what was once considered a non colour – black – ranging from Kohl, Payne’s grey, Obsidian, Ink, Charcoal, Jet, Melanin, Pitch black. Who knew?

Did you know that there is a dingy yellow shade of white called Isabelline which is named after the sovereign Isabella I of Castile who wore the same shift for the longest time? That the colour blue, from once being undervalued in the western world and from being considered the colour of ‘degenerates and barbarians’, has now become one of the favourite colours? Or, that the chrome yellow used by Van Gogh for his sunflowers has darkened making the flowers in the painting actually look like they are wilting over time. 

The nondescript beige is one of our favourite go to shades and people are always looking for ways to make it sound more exciting. So we particularly liked the story of when scientists after surveying over 200,000 galaxies discovered that the universe is actually a shade of beige, called for suggestions for a more exciting name. These included “big bang buff” and “skyvory,” but in the end they settled (rather boringly, we thought) on “cosmic latte.”

When St.Claire talks about the history of colours through paints and how some shades  didn’t exist for the longest time and later how difficult it was for artists to get hold of certain pigments and how their patrons wrote the use and the quantity of certain pigments into their contracts, we realise what a time of plenty we live in and what a luxury it is these days to be able to order a tube of any colour online. 

The book is beautiful, displaying all the colour shades it discusses. Not surprisingly it was voted by USA Today as one of the ‘hundred books to read while stuck at home during the Corona virus crisis.’ We find that it is on our list of permanently borrowed books from the library and is likely to be so till we buy our own copies. We took the longest time writing this post because every time we referred to the book for reviewing we kept getting distracted and had to forcibly stop ourselves from just reading more.

Picture perfect

How much time do we all spend drooling over beautiful photos of books on Instagram, Litsy and Pinterest? It’s the same with the cooking sites and cookbooks as well – with beautifully staged and artistically displayed pictures of food. But how does the food taste? We never know and are not likely to find out with more than half the stuff, its just the beauty of the visuals which bombard us on these sites.

The book and reading sites have colour coordinated books, books arranged according to size, books in box sets, books surrounded by flowers, books with candles artfully places around them (That makes us very nervous. Who puts candles next to a book?) The classics are always staged with lace and faded flowers in sepia tones. And we have spent countless minutes admiring the wonderful photos; the beautiful and neatly arranged books causing serious envy. We look at the photographs and then roll our eyes at our own haphazard, stuffed and challenged bookshelves. Nothing picture worthy about them.

Do we have the place to strategically place bobble heads on our shelves or artfully place a silk scarf around the books or carefully display pretty bookmarks on top of the books? Honestly, bookmarks for the most part are useless, because when did we ever stop reading? And most importantly who are these people who buy hardbacks? We  barely have space for our kindles let alone paperbacks. Hardbacks are a distant memory, a dream from another time when the world was young and the shelves were empty. 

But it’s only recently we realised the depressing truth. When a kid was gifted a box set of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series to help her tide over the lockdown, she read the series through and through. Once she had gotten over her ire with Brandon Sanderson for the ending, she tried to fit the books back into the box. That is when realisation dawned of the practical impossibility of putting completed books back. A trilogy which has been properly read and mulled over, spilt over, spread out and slept over will refuse to be re boxed. The books had to, quite literally, be shoved in using all the strength and skill at one’s disposal. The box now bulges out in an ungainly manner. It made us re consider all our other books which are in such a dilapidated state with numerous ridges on the spines, curly corners, frayed edges and covers that do not stay down anymore. We can’t Instagram photos of any of our books because they will not look perfect or pretty in the photos, They have all been read.

A quiet summer read

The ancients said that one should never judge a book by its cover and by and large we try to follow that advice. Sometimes, however, you cannot help but judge a book by its title and any title which has the word ‘cerulean’ in it has an instant appeal. It conjures up thoughts of summer breezes, brightness, Monet and magic. The House in the Cerulean Sea by T J Klune certainly lives up to its name. Like an impressionist painting, at first glance, it is a pretty picture but when you look at it more closely, you can see the detailed and intricate play of light and shadows. The shadows are quite dark and intense but the light manages to carry it through.

Linus Baker is a caseworker for the department in charge of magical youth (DICOMY). He is kind hearted but bureaucratic and a strict follower of rules even though they may not be fair at times or even practical. As all rule observers, Linus tends to be pedantic in his inspection of the ‘orphanages’ where children with magical abilities are confined. However when he is sent to the top secret orphanage at Marsyas Island, the place, the children, the master of the orphanage and the owner of the island all have an effect of gradually eroding his bureaucratic layers and exposing the core of kindness and compassion underneath.

The novel is charming, with a lot of humour. We particularly loved Lucy, one of the children at the orphanage, who is an absolute delight. Unfortunately we really cannot say more than that without giving too much away. Most people are capable of deep wells of kindness, sometimes it just takes the right influence to bring it forth but only if they allow it. The book constantly re enforces the idea that ‘different’ being equated with bad is only a matter of conditioning. The children in the orphanage, despite being radically different are ultimately just children – in turns naughty and charming. As with all children their chief need is only for the security that comes from feeling loved.

In a difficult world The House in the Cerulean Sea is worth reading just to see how wonderful it can be when people open themselves up and are more compassionate.