The darkness in crowds

There is something about a group of people that is less than the sum of its parts“. (Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher)

We keep saying we are done with YA books. The pandemic put us off them and we can’t explain why. Perhaps all that youth jumping about the place, behaving like adults, with the wisdom of sages, knowledge of diverse subjects more specialised than PhDs and then saving the world, becomes irritating after a while. More so because we know that a lot more is actually required to save even a tiny little bit. Then we happened to read Minor Mage by T.Kingfisher which is not even YA, the protagonist is 12 so we suppose it is a middle grade book. But what fun! A lovely little book about a boy, Oliver, who is a minor mage because he knows just three spells and has a smart mouthed, clever armadillo as his familiar.

Oliver’s village which is facing drought decides to send twelve year old Oliver off by himself to the distant Rainblade mountains to ask for rain from the rainherders. His normally congenial and friendly neighbours become something else in a crowd and forget that the distance and dangers between the village and the mountains are not something a 12 year old should have to face alone, even if he is a mage. They do all of this very conveniently when his mother happens to be out of town.

Along the way Oliver, feeling betrayed by his village but supported by his trusty armadillo does face darkness and hardships, ghouls and ghosts. The adult humans who could have helped turn out to be worse monsters. Although Oliver’s repertoire of spells is limited and he wishes that he knew the big flamboyant ones, ultimately its his little spells which are most useful. The relationship between Oliver and his armadillo is cute beyond words and the two really can count on each other for support, humour and a good amount of friendly criticism.

As is typical of T. Kingfisher, her children’s books have very dark undertones, which is what makes them more than children’s books and a true comment on society. In that sense this is a book suitable both for children and adults, as the best books always are.

The contradiction of avocados

Strangely enough there is one fruit which is constantly accused of being tasteless and yet while digging into our salad during lunch it struck us that the avocado in it adds so much to the taste and texture of the salad. How does that work? What strange chemistry is it? Or do they have a subtle magic?

The world is all about debates right now. Left versus right. To vaccinate or not to vaccinate. Is there climate change?( though that seems to be fast becoming a moot point). Is Russia justified in sabre rattling at the Ukraine border? Should the hijab be banned in schools? Should there be non white characters in The Rings of Power( the under production Amazon series based on Tolkein’s work)? Should people in high positions( read MD of the National Stock Exchange) be allowed to consult himalayan gurus before taking important decisions for their organizations? How about consulting the astrological charts instead? And why not consult the alien’s? And that is the next debate – Are there aliens? So the like and dislike for the humble avocado seems rather insignificant in comparison.

But when you are sitting eating a salad on an unseasonably hot afternoon in February, all other debates and issues fade into the background. The magnificence of the avocado brings about the thought that people who dislike it are crazy. Just think of it, a salad without avocados is just a mix of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and a couple of olives for decoration. You add in the avocado and suddenly the dressing has extra flavour and you can taste summer in your mouth. A toast can be just bread and egg but the moment you throw on some sliced avocado it becomes gourmet. And of course do we even need to say anything about guacamole since it just speaks for itself. Then there is avocado in spring rolls, in sushi, in burritos which add an extra element to the dish. Those who have not had either avocado milkshake or avocado ice cream don’t know what they are missing. There is the dessert made with mashed avocado and port wine which can transport you to a different place.

The moral of the story is that before you brand something as tasteless, you must consider what it enhances. Also, there may be really important issues in the world today but ultimately we are all slaves to our taste buds and food is what makes the world go round and gives it a flavour. Need we say more?

Maths, empathy and Peanut butter

They say that if you put on someone’s shoes and walk around in them for a bit you will have a better understanding of the shoe owner. Like Scout said in To Kill a Mockingbird, to stand on another person’s porch means you get their view of the street. There are any number of stories written about aliens coming to earth and trying to blend in for their own purposes but in that blending they gain understanding and become assimilated. In that sense Matt Haig‘s book The Humans is not anything different. The difference really comes in the approach and writing and gives the reader a thought provoking, philosophical and mathematical book to contemplate for some time. Much like other books of Matt Haig, more specifically The Midnight Library (reviewed by us here).

Aliens are constantly observing earth and the moment we achieve something truly advanced, they feel they have to intervene. In Star Trek when warp drive was reached the Vulcans arrived. In The Humans, Professor Andrew Martin, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge, solves the Riemann hypothesis which claims there is a pattern in prime numbers. the Vonnadorians, highly advanced mathematical beings decide that humans have not reached the level advancement to deal with the consequences of understanding such patterns. One of their kind is sent to Earth, in Professor Martin’s skin, to delete all evidence of the resolution and also delete the people who know about it. In fact Professor Martin himself has been disposed of even before the book starts. The alien finds himself in the Professor’s House with his estranged wife, teenage son and elderly dog, having to deal with the pitfalls of being a human.

The alien’s initial revulsion to the way people look, the eating of food and any kind of physical contact soon gives way. Predictably he finds himself enjoying certain things like human touch, peanut butter as also the companionship of the dog. The book is written in the first person, from the alien’s point of view, as a memoir to inform his people what it is like to be a human. For someone who has been told only horror stories about the greed and violence of humankind, he is surprised that there are redeeming features like Debussy, the Beach Boys and Emily Dickinson. He also keeps mentioning Gregori Perleman, the Russian mathematician who has consistently refused all awards, monetary or otherwise because he doesn’t believe in them. The human capacity for emotions and familial feelings also start to have an appeal.

This could have been a sci fi thriller, with just action and noise but instead the story told is down to earth and contemplative about the little things of life that make us human, including our fondness for household pets. An enjoyable book, well worth reading a few times.

Nowhere is Somewhere too

The third instalment in the Skyward YA series by Brandon Sanderson, Cytonic, takes its funny, brave and plucky protagonist, Spensa, right out of this dimension and into the place she calls “the Nowhere”. It’s a place out of this universe but which has portals linking it and bits and pieces of worlds in our universe leak through to the other side in the form of free floating islands. The only problem is that after sometime in the Nowhere, people start loosing their memories of friends, family and home. Spensa and her trusty AI, M-Bot tie up with Chet who has been in the Nowhere for so long that he remembers nothing of how he got there and who he was or when he came. One of the ways to retain some memory is to be in a group and have regular social interactions. There are warring pirate factions, strange creatures, aliens and mining facilities manned by the autocratic Superiority from Spensa’s universe in the Nowhere. Spensa being Spensa jumps into being part of a pirate faction and also treading the ‘path of the elders’ which will help her understand her cytonic powers and the monstrous Delvers who live in the true Nowhere and are inimical to life forms in the somewhere. Confused yet?

It really isn’t that confusing if you have read the earlier volumes but the beginning chapters drag in this book and one wonders where the story is going. Also Spensa seems have a set format for each book where she is an outsider having to deal with a disparate group of people, some who are resentful of her, and then with her brilliant flying skills she manages to bring them all together for a common purpose. We did wonder whether the books could have been condensed into less volumes. But then again Sanderson’s style tends towards multiple doorstoppers.

The exploration of sentient AIs is not new (remember Terminator and countless sci fi books?) but since society and technology is rapidly moving towards robotics, the worry of them developing sentience is now becoming real. But M-Bot developing emotions and feelings is not only cute but also an exploration of philosophical questions on what it means to be human.

The book is fun but meanders a little. However it is essential in the series because of the number of reveals it has. Enjoyable but not as much as Skyward (reviewed by us here), the first book, which is still the standard in this series.

It’s complicated

Try as we might, we don’t remember meeting an apeirogon when we were learning about polygons in school. So we had to look it up when we came across Colum McCann‘s Booker longlisted (2020) novel – an apeirogon is a polygon with a countable infinite number of sides. No wonder we didn’t remember it from school, the concept must have fried our brains.

It’s never easy to write anything about a long standing conflict and most writers would avoid delving into such a topic. Even if they do venture there, the narrative is usually from a single point of view. Not so with Colum McCann’s book Apeirogon. It is unique in the sense that, like it’s title, it tries to throw some light on the multiple facets of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The book is a hybrid novel, based on a true story of the friendship between two fathers; one Palestinian and the other an Israeli. Both men have lost young daughters to the conflict. Bassem Aramin the father of Abir and Rami Elhanan the father of Smadar become activists and are part of the group Combatants for Peace. The members of the group are all people who have lost relatives to the conflict, they meet regularly in an attempt to reach a common ground and perhaps bring about some change in perceptions. Interspersed between the stories of the fathers, their loss and their grief, are short narratives, like lists of migratory birds or stories of musical performances or Philippe Petit’s high wire walk over the Hinnom Valley. Initially the reader wonders about the juxtaposition of these stories to that of the two fathers but it all does come together rather beautifully.

Ultimately the conflict is only the back drop, the book is really about parenthood and provides glimpses of what it may feel like to lose a young child, one a teenager and the other a tween. Even though both fathers have other children it doesn’t reduce the loss of that one child. The book is made more poignant because it talks about the little things in each father’s life, their interests and how they are with their friends, families and with each other. Also the constant memories of the little things their daughters used to do – the flick of hair, the music which was listened to, the favourite pose to read in, the watch which would be wound up every night, the candy bracelet that Abir was holding in her hand when she was shot. The book is also about the total and utter pointlessness of the feelings and emotions of common people. Every conflict is extended and fed by political will and vested interests. The grieving parent’s stories don’t change anything, the pain does not go away and instead it just gets lost in the overwhelming rhetoric of accusations and counter accusations from both sides.

Apeirogon is not a book that a reader can just read non stop or read just once. It’s a book that forces the reader to mull over each narrative and each chapter and revert back to certain points every once in a while. Many people have said that this is the Exodus (Leon Uris) of our times. We defiantly loved Exodus when we read it but Apeirogon is its aftermath and makes the reader ask the question – whether, if at all, there is a solution?

Hodge Podge

A few weeks back we had reviewed  Jennifer Lynn Barnes‘ Inheritance Games and found it interesting enough. But we did remark that a mystery should be finished off in one book instead of being dragged out into a trilogy. After reading The Hawthorne Legacy, the second book in the series, we are even more convinced that the story should have been completed in a single book, particularly since the second one seems to be a typical middle novel filler. 

The entire book just felt like more of the same thing. The only difference was that in the first book the puzzles left by Tobias Hawthorne were meant for his grand sons and in this book the puzzles are meant for his daughters. The author keeps trying to imply that Tobias Hawthorne has created the puzzles in such a way that they only be solved if people work together. Nothing in the story shows that while Tobias Hawthorne was alive, he was at all interested in keeping the family congenial and together, instead he comes across as a control freak. The reader is constantly thinking – Whatever! 

The characters, including the protagonist Avery, might be really smart when it comes to solving the puzzles but otherwise they are all immature, including the dead grandfather who is continuing to control them all from beyond the grave. 

The book feels like a whole lot of successful tropes thrown together- the romantic triangle; the big question of Avery’s father; suddenly you find out that someone is adopted and then there are the puzzles. It just goes and and feels like more of the same. The Indian word for it is bhelpuri! However, this is the most bland bhelpuri ever. 

We prefer our mysteries to be crisp not an unending soap opera. 

The Magic of Dough

Every once in a while a book comes along that, although meant for children, is wonderful for people of all ages to read. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T Kingfisher is one such book. Fourteen year old Mona who has a special knack with dough, works in her aunt Tabitha’s bakery in the city of Riverbraid which is ruled by the Duchess. In Mona’s world there are some people who have wizardly powers over one or two objects. Mona’s affinity is to dough, she can encourage it to rise better, be softer or more crumbly depending on what she is making and she can animate gingerbread men to entertain customers in the bakery. She also has a sourdough starter called Bob who has developed a personality because she went a little overboard with the magic she put into him.

The story starts with Mona finding a dead body in the bakery early in the morning. This results in Mona being taken to the castle to be questioned by the Duchess. From there on the book is a murder mystery, a tale of treachery, conspiracy and of course, baking. In the city of Riverbraid, it becomes apparent to people with magical powers, however minor such powers may be, that they are being targeted and killed off. Rumours and a few suspicious comments here and there mean that there is swift and sudden uprising of sentiment against those with powers. As a result, most people with even a smattering of wizardly ability decide to leave Riverbraid but that’s not an option open for Mona. Mona and Spindle, a street kid whom she befriends, decide that since the grown ups have totally messed things up, it is left to them to enlighten the Duchess of what is going on in her city.

There is a veneer of warm heartedness to the story because of all the baking but it has extremely dark undertones. The story is a commentary on how adults in charge can allow themselves to be mislead by the power hungry. And how it is unfair to force teenagers, who just want to be teenagers, to shoulder adult responsibilities and become heroes. It is also a frightening portrayal of the way in which the general populace can suddenly turn against the ‘other’ which always then raises the question of ‘belonging’. The fact that T. Kingfisher is a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon who writes horror does come through at times in this book. Apparently it was initially rejected by publishers because they couldn’t decide in which age category the story fell. That it went on to win both the Locus Award and the Andre Norton Award says something about the intelligence of the publishing industry.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is a multi-layered book with immense appeal and worth reading for it’s plucky heroine, quirky world and all the baking.

Inn the space

Earth sits on the crossroad of warp points and dimensional gateways. As a result, at any given time, there are intergalactic travellers passing through and using the planet as a way station to shorten their journey. It was declared to be neutral territory by a treaty which also ensured that this knowledge was kept from the people of Earth, since the civilisation here is not yet sufficiently prepared for either inter galactic travel or dealing with technologically advanced aliens. Warring and competing races using earth as a way station have to maintain peace and anonymity. These aliens are hosted at semi sentient Inns manned by the Innkeepers, a group of people with special abilities, bonded to their Inns, and who are the only Earth people with knowledge of Earth’s status.

Ilona AndrewsInnkeeper Chronicles tells the story of Gertrude Hunt, one such Inn in Texas and it’s innkeeper Dina Demille. From a family of Innkeepers, Dina has been allowed to revive and bond with Gertrude Hunt, a dilapidated Inn. At the start of the series she only has one guest, a retired, sometime cannibalistic, inter galactic tyrant called Caldenia who has bought a lifetime package stay. The Inn itself is combination of Howl’s moving castle with doors opening out onto other places (in this case other planets) and the Tardis of Dr. Who, since it is bigger on the inside. The Inn is capable of rearranging itself to make room for its guests as well as provide them with the comforts and conveniences that they are used to as well as race appropriate atmosphere.

There are four books and a novella out in the series so far but the fourth book is about Dina’s sister and set on another planet. It somehow does not have the same charm as the first three. Perhaps because it does not feature the Inn nor the theatrical porcupine like chef or the intergalactic tyrant.

We loved the concept and world building in the first three books. Dina is all powerful while on the grounds of her Inn and able to control her sometimes unruly and oftentimes warring guests. Her symbiotic relationship with the Inn is fascinating and it’s wonderful the way in which the Inn can change its own architecture as well as make things disappear and reappear upon need. The ultimate fantasy for most households. Also the fact that not only can Dina shop at Cisco or Walmart in her town but also in Baha Char, a melting pot merchant planet with direct access from the Inn. She carries a broom like a witch but it can transform itself into a weapon of any kind. Then there is her Shih Tzu which, though dog like, is not entirely a dog. With her arsenal of powers that seem like magic but are, Dina claims, an ability to bend physics, she is able to handle powerful aliens who are not always willing to stick to the treaty terms.

The books are written in a light way but deal with a lot of issues relevant to today’s world. The second book is all about an arbitration that takes place at the Inn between three warring factions seeking to control a resource rich planet. The discussions on the toll taken by prolonged warfare on an individual as well as on a societal level does not come across as either preachy or heavy and yet it hits hard.

We have never read anything by Ilona Andrews before and were a little doubtful about her other series when we looked them up but the Innkeeper books are worth a read. The books move along very fast and though a light read, are not frivolous. They do cause dereliction of duty however, because one wants to just read them instead of dealing with the day.

Knives Out Redux

Avery, a high school student is living with her elder half sister and the two of them are just about making ends meet financially. Out of the blue Avery finds out that she has been named in the will of a billionaire, Tobias Hawthorne. The surprise elements for all concerned being that she has never heard of him before, she has, to the best of her knowledge, never met him and is definitely not related to him. At the Will reading she finds out that her dream of inheriting a couple of thousands (for whatever reason) has now become a legacy of untold billions. But it all comes with a caveat; Avery, in order to inherit her fortune, has to live in the family home, Hawthorne House, for a year along with the rest of the family who have been left next to nothing. What fun!

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes sets up poor Avery to become a target of sorts. Of course, everyone in the Hawthorne family is suspicious of her. They think she is a gold digger but can’t prove it. The question ‘Why her?’ dominates their lives. No one is able to connect the dots including the reader.

Tobias Hawthorne loved puzzles and riddles but basically he was a manipulator who was toughest on his family. The only reason he got away with it was because he was so rich. Hawthorne House itself is full of secret passages, riddles and clues. Avery along with the four Hawthorne grandsons has been left personal letters and it seems that Tobias Hawthorne has left one last mystery game for them to play which could answer the question of Avery’s inheritance.

The book is fast paced and Avery a smart protagonist. It feels very much like the Knives Out story with an outsider inheriting the family fortune but in this case there doesn’t seem to be a murder. Except of course for the various attempts on Avery’s life. Our main grouse was – who writes a mystery in a trilogy? An unsolved mystery at the end and having to wait for the next book is the worst possible thing. Luckily book 2 is already out but book 3 is likely to take some time.

To eat or not to eat

Diwali has come and gone. The lights, firecrackers, diyas, shopping, new clothes, visitors, and panicking dogs have all become memories of last week. But the one lasting memory which has not only remained in our minds but on waistlines(and elsewhere, distributed unevenly, depending on body type) are all the sweets and other food. It seems like a lot more eating and meeting were done this year, perhaps to make up for all the sitting at home the last year and a half. It suddenly made us appreciate all the socialising of Diwali. Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would say that! Normally one tries to get out of the rounds of visiting and gatherings that become de rigeur at Diwali time. Such a pain when all you want to do is sit at home and read, instead one has to go and stuff oneself with all the things cooked by the eager beavers and exclaim how it is the best one has ever eaten. But this year we jumped to it. Even wore new clothes with matching masks! Oh, the freedom of meeting people in a social gathering, eating and drinking in company instead of in front of Netflix. True, the numbers were less than before but more than we have become accustomed to in Covid times.

Now that all that is done, everyone is going in for the fads to lose weight. There is veganism, intermittent fasting, green juice diet, only oats diet, gluten free diet, sugar and white flour free diet, only breakfast diet, only dinner diet and so on. So many choices, so much stomach! We have considered all and chucked them overboard for the sake of sanity. Besides, who is going to finish off all those sweets sitting in the house? The solution probably was to eat less last week but it never occurred to us in the excitement of it all. We are not repentant. Neither were we Diwali scrooges this year. We ate humble pie along with all the other foods and admitted to having entered into the spirit of things.