The time it takes to unlearn

We noticed that a lot of people suddenly became very prolific with their blogs during the lockdown. Those who had been posting monthly have posted weekly and the weekly posts have become daily and those posting on a daily basis managed to even put up multiple posts on a day. Bloggers have been posting lockdown diaries, cooking diaries, reading lists, online streaming lists, self made music videos and self publishing books.  People we know expected us to similarly ramp up our posts during the lockdowns. But how? Is the question that we keep asking.

First of all we could not meet over coffee, therefore it follows that there were no conversations. And it’s not like coffee powder was easily available to sit at home over a cup of coffee and gossip on the phone.

Secondly who had the time? There was a double whammy of WFH. Work from home and work for home. Plus it’s not easy to live in a full house 24/7; having to deal with people’s moods and demands. The only silver lining being, no pollution and therefore effortlessly great skin for those few months. Sadly things are back to normal on that front.

Thirdly with all the uncertainly of Covid and unprecedented numerous lockdowns we found ourselves completely incapable of reading serious books. It was so bad that when the long awaited  Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel came through from the library, our inertia to read it has been astounding. When in the middle of the lockdown Amazon actually delivered by post our pre lockdown order of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, we went as far as admiring the cover but the contents of the book as yet remain unexplored.  Instead we have indulged in pulp fantasy which is conducive to skim reading, can be picked up, put down and the placement of the bookmark is not critical to the continuity of the story, no concentration is required and is easily forgotten. It was our version of binge watching idiotic TV series.

And then there were all these rumours that according to the Mayan calendar the world was going to end on Sunday the 21st of June, so we had planned to meet in the library of the after world on Monday. As you know that didn’t come to pass. We still haven’t met but have decided to write while speaking over the phone. We should probably change our tagline from conversations and coffee to conversation over the phone. End of lockdown not withstanding, with the way the numbers have been rising in Bangalore this is probably the way it’s going to be. We find that along with forgetting how to read we have forgotten how to write, or how to key in our blog post while talking. We have also forgotten how wordpress works and editing is a challenge. Sadly it also looks like we have forgotten how to talk as conversation just keeps veering back to Covid. It’s taken us just three months to forget all this when we have been blogging for more than three years and talking, reading and writing for many more than we care to count.

Was it a dream when we used to meet on Mondays to have tea or coffee and have conversations? Was that really us or somebody else?

Viral Confusion

It’s just as well that Bangalore is currently in the grips of exam season which means kids and their parents are pretty much trapped at home. The former to ostensibly study and the latter to enforce study and live in the delusion of having exercised good parenting practices. There is not much of eating out, shopping or visiting movie theatres. At least for the next one month neither party has to worry too much about the Corona virus (or Covid 19) which seems to be sweeping around the world and making mincemeat of everyone’s nerves. But if you thought quarantining yourself was the solution to avoiding the virus, think again. The rumour mongering around Covid 19 has been more infectious than possibly the virus itself.

The stories, theories and conspiracies abound and grow larger in the re telling. Somewhat like Chinese whispers (pun totally intended). Beginning with its origins – the virus emanated from contact with animals in the Wuhan market, possibly the animals sneezed on people; it was transmitted from bats that were eaten by the Chinese; it was transmitted by snakes that ate the bats and were in turn eaten by the Chinese; the roofs of the homes in Wuhan have also played a part because they are rumoured to be an ideal habitat for chrysanthemum bats. There were stories that China was developing the virus as a biological weapon and it got out of hand and then there was the story that the US and UK developed the virus and released it to deliberately ruin the Chinese economy and so on and so forth.  

Speculation is rife about the number of people already infected. No one is believing the official figures put out by various governments. Because, as everyone knows, governments lie. The actual figures of people infected and deaths are speculated to run into hundreds of thousands as opposed to the merely hundreds.  In India so far there have been 5 reported cases. Goodness knows how many people are wandering about with Corona virus undetected and thinking instead that they have a regular viral fever which is rampant here at any time of the year. Besides, who in India has the time to detect Covid19 when at any given time there are any number of people running around with Dengue, typhoid, H1N1, bird flu and the gods alone know what else. There is also the possibility, as warned by that great announcer – WhatsApp message – that people popping bubble wrap could have contracted the virus since the air inside the bubble wrap originates from China! There goes the pleasure of online shopping, which is all about bubble wrap anyway.

The symptoms of the virus do not seem to be unique and can easily be confused with a regular viral fever, flu or even dengue. But that hasn’t stopped the internet from putting out random information and videos of people collapsing like gnats in streets and staggering about the place like a zombie apocalypse.

Since there is no vaccine or specific medication for Covid 19 (the pharmaceutical industry is of course working away at it and will make tonnes of money before this all dies down), the possibilities of treatment are endless. People have jumped into the fray and are prescribing home remedies like drinking rasam, homeopathic medicines, ayurvedic medicines and also Chinese traditional medicines (which is fine as long as they don’t involve bats and snakes). The one wonderful meme that is all over the net claims that alcohol helps prevent Covid19 – we are definitely going with this one. We suggest heading out to the shops before stocks run out.

Our personal precaution however is to stay at home, read a book, drink stuff (tea, coffee or wine, whichever goes with the book) and best stick to buying your own books for now as borrowing them may be fraught with danger. One never knows who may have been sneezing on the book. And if it seems like we are making light of a very serious situation, we prefer that to the alternative which would be to start freaking out.

Spooky creepy

Paris, the catacombs, the bones of nine million people strewn under the city and then who can say what goes bump in the night. Tunnel of Bones, the second in Victoria Schwab’s Cassidy(Cass) Blake series is perhaps scarier than her first book, City of Ghosts (our review). With the poltergeist of a young boy haunting Paris after following Cass and her friend Jacob out of the catacombs, the haunting is as creepy as it can get.

Cass’s parents are in Paris filming another instalment of their television series on haunted cities and, naturally, ghosts abound. But somewhere, at least initially, the book starts to feel like an educational commentary on the history of Paris which becomes a little long winded. Cass’s parents continue to be oblivious of their daughter’s special skill which starts to seem a little unreal. There are the predictable references to French food thrown in – Cass seems to enjoy the pain au chocolat which gets mentioned a number of times.

For followers of the series there is a little bit of the back story of Jacob, Cass’s ghostly friend. The reader finds out what had happened to turn Jacob into a ghost. Cass and Jacob, with a little bit of help from Adele, a local girl and with Lara Chowdhury (from the earlier book) providing text support, manage to figure out the mystery of who the poltergeist is and how to send him on.

An easy read but also nicely creepy which the younger readers will likely devour. Since the series moves from city to city, we did wonder which haunted city will figure in the next book. We however read somewhere that a trip to New Orleans is planned. Should be haunted enough for Cass and Jacob.

The Book Connect

As always we love books about books, readers and book sellers. The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman is one such book, delightfully filled to the brim with book nerds. The best kind of people.

The eponymous heroine, Nina Hill, works in an independent bookshop, runs book clubs for various age groups on different days of the month and has a serious planning OCD; her life has to be meticulously organised. She is happy in her shell which consists of her work space, her small apartment, her cat and her trivia quiz team. Her mother, a globe trotting photographer, puts in an appearance occasionally via telephone. Her father is non existent, being a person her mother had always refused to talk about. But Nina is fine with that.

Into this rather contented life comes the information that her father, who lived in the same city (LA), had died and included her in his will, along with his children and grandchildren from his three wives.

From an introverted, only child Nina suddenly finds herself a member of a huge family. Some of her new relatives turn out to be quite welcoming but some are decidedly suspicious. And if that was not enough, she finds her life further complicated by a budding relationship with the leader of the opposing quiz team. Life is further thrown out of gear for Nina because when you work in an independent bookstore, inevitably it threatens to close down as, surprise surprise, it is not making any money.

The rest of the book is all about how one woman with anxiety issues and a passion for planning is forced to deal with the uncertainties flung in her way.

For a reader the enjoyment comes from all the references to other books and the lighthearted, conversational style of writing usually applied in books written in the first person. Waxman manages to make it work really well here even in the third person. We were amused to see the constant references to Harry Potter, a series that has become so much a part of popular culture. The references are even made by characters who have not read the books.

A fun and quirky book to read as a filler in between, perhaps more serious, books. It remains to be seen if anything about it is memorable a year down the line.

Lost in fables, bees and owls

The Starless Sea is Erin Morgenstern‘s second book, her first one – The Night Circus, published in 2011, remains one of our all time favourite books. So we anticipated The Starless Sea would fill us with delight, particularly since the title itself is so beautiful. And so it did. At least initially.


The novel starts off in typical Morgenstern style and has a mystical quality to the storytelling. There are stories within stories and fables within fables. Each individual fable that is recounted is beautiful in itself. There are doors around the world that, if you are lucky enough to come across and adventurous enough to open, lead to vast underground harbours on the shores of the Starless Sea. The harbours are basically libraries full of books, cats, magic and bee motifs. Zachary Ezra Rawlins comes across one such door as a school boy but does not open it. He is haunted by his decision until in college he finds a book which leads him to search for answers regarding the door he failed to open. In so doing he meets a whole host of characters and discovers that the doors are being deliberately destroyed and the harbours fading.

The underground world created by Erin Morgenstern is beautiful. Her language is entrancing. But somewhere, at least half way through we wanted it all to start connecting up. The problem with so many fables and metaphors is that the reader starts to look to recognise each and every character in terms of the fables and is let down when that does not happen. With constant reference to owls and the Owl King, we kept expecting him to turn up at some point. Whether he actually did or not escaped us entirely. Beyond the beauty of language, the book is too surrealistic; like a Dali painting where nothing makes sense but you cannot tear your eyes away, desperately trying to make sense of it. Bogged down in the sticky sweetness of the Starless Sea, this is a story we have decided to let go of. We can’t bring ourselves to reread it in order to try and make more sense of it.

Beware the humans

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 Skyward, the first book in the series by Brandon Sanderson (reviewed by us here), had humans isolated on the planet Detritus in the far distant future. That story deals with human society and how it reorganised itself, its fights for survival with the invading Krell and its attempts at technological advancement. It was also Spensa’s story – how she becomes a pilot, discovers the AI ship M-bot, becomes a part of the flight crew fighting the alien Krell and discovers the latent genetic ability she has of jumping through hyperspace.

(Spoilers ahead for Starsight)

 Starsight takes Spensa out of Detritus and into the eponymous space colony where a number of alien species co exist under the government of the Superiority. Except, of course, for humans who are the reviled ones. With the help of M-bot and along with her pet, the doomslug, Spensa travels to Starsight disguised as an alien, to try and steal hyperdrive technology which would help her people get off Detritus. The story deals with Spensa’s attempts at espionage and her attempts to mingle with the citizens of the Superiority. The camaraderie of the first book which was all about Spensa becoming a part of a team is missing as are her friends who put in a very limited appearance in this story. Her isolation on Starsight and with M-bot in philosopher/ self discovery mode, the story does not provide the reader with the same smart quips and humour which Skyward did.

 Spensa also has to constantly deal with the anti human sentiments on Starsight and how humans are considered dangerous, both for their aggressive nature and also for having tried in the past to use the all powerful inter dimensional beings known as the delvers to win their wars. Disguised as another species, Spensa is not able to adequately defend her own. Though she does learn that the aliens she had thought of as monsters are also people just trying to live their own lives.

 In a way this is a more important book because of the themes of accepting the other, inter cultural relationships, the meaning of freedom as well as the meaning of being alive and the understanding of being in “the other’s shoe”. But perhaps because of all this Starsight is a more serious book with more espionage and less action and is also perhaps more boring. Spensa and M-bot are out of their element, but we loved Hesho, the fox/vole like tiny alien, autocratic king who claims not to be a king anymore, and who has a poetic soul. In many ways he redeemed the book for us.

 Since Sanderson is incapable of writing trilogies, we wonder how many books there are going to be in the series. Either way, we await the next instalment.

The faerie queen

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  There have always been tales and stories of a mortal girl who becomes the Queen of faerie. Because of her goodness, her beauty and bravery she attracts the King who decides she would be worthy of being his queen. Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy which ends with The Queen of Nothing is very different take on an old trope. Jude Duarte manages to trick Prince Cardan and makes him King, with herself as the power behind the throne, in the first book. In the second book she rules the kingdom and juggles the incessant politics and betrayal. She is ruthless in her desire to survive and defend her family as well as the shadow court of spies of which she is a member. The King starts to appreciate her not because of her goodness but because of her human ability to lie as well as her ferociousness and secretly marries her.

  In the Queen of Nothing, Jude, who was exiled at the end of the second book, manages to find her way back to faerie and immediately gets embroiled in the power struggle between the throne and her adoptive father. As queen of faerie she’s having none of it. It’s wonderful to read that Jude manages to achieve her one overwhelming desire which was to make the faerie courts, both seelie and unseelie, afraid of her. Not for her the winning over with kindness, which is the norm in most such tales.

  This book was an easier read than the previous two books, perhaps because things fall predictably into place and all loose ends are tied up, less ruthlessly perhaps than the reader has come to expect from the series. Jude is as feisty, resourceful and loyal as ever but has less opportunity to be so since (spoilers ahead) the wicked King is no longer wicked, the wayward sister is firmly in Jude’s camp, the popular girl from school now accepts Jude and the cannibalistic, vicious general from one of the rebelling courts has joined Jude’s fan club. For Jude, once she has been acknowledged as the queen, with Cardan’s backing and her own reputation, the troubles at court seem minor and the only real dilemma and contention in the book comes from her relationship with her adoptive father Madoc and her power play with him, while still seeking his approbation on some level.

  The book, like all of Black’s books is very enjoyable but somehow lacks the intensity of the others in the series. A satisfying conclusion to Jude’s story nonetheless, ending with human and faerie alike, appreciating pizza. And who can argue with that?

The 2019 Red Carpet

We’ve now come to that time of the year when we normally pick the books/authors that we have read during the year and which we feel deserve awards. So here go our awards for 2019:

1. For us it’s turned out to be a year of bumping into ghostly books. We haven’t minded, rather that than actual things that go bump in the night. We’ve read a number of them, from Victoria Schwab’s City of Ghosts and Tunnel of Bones in her Cassidy Blake series to Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo and a few in between. But somehow none could provide the sheer fun of Lockwood. So we are giving our first award to the Lockwood series by Jonathan Stroud. Even though we didn’t read those books this year, they get the award for the most satisfying ghost stories and ensuring that all other ghost stories invariably get compared with Lockwood.

2. Maggie Stiefvater for consistently writing the most poetic prose, as read in The Scorpio Races and Call down the Hawk.

3. Margaret Atwood gets our next award for proving that ‘it can be done’ with Testament, as in, one can write a satisfying sequel even after thirty odd years and win a Booker for it.

4. The standing ovation award goes to Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez. An eye opener of a book about the gender data gap. According to us this book deserves to win every award that may be there in the non fiction category for this year.

5. The most down to earth award goes to Michelle Obama for Becoming, for an honest and grounded recollection of a life that became different and difficult.

6.The award for a great genre switch from fantasy to science fiction goes to Brandon Sanderson. After coming out with tomes of epic fantasy in the form of The Stormlight Archives and finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, he did a turn around and started a very enjoyable science fiction series with Skyward.

7. Katherine Arden gets the award for the most satisfying conclusion of a trilogy with Winter of the Witch. A book that one wants to go back to again and again.

8. The miss-able author of the year award goes to John Grisham. After the fiasco of his last few books, crowned with the disaster that was The Rooster Bar, we did not bother to even look at his new book this year. We can’t even remember what it is called.

9. Find of the year award goes to Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. A gem of a book.

10. Food novel of the year award goes to Sourdough by Robin Sloan. It managed to get (one of us) baking bread and deserves an award for actually making the microbial culture of sourdough starters sound wondrously exciting.

11. The relief of the year award goes to Donna Leon’s Unto Us a Son is Given. Leon is back in form with this book which was such a relief and a joy to read with Brunetti and his family digging into delicious meals.

12. The book of the Year for us was definitely Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. A charming, touching and graceful book about the remnants of a time gone by, adapting to and surviving in a new world.

A lot of people are mentioning their books for the decade since this one is coming  to an end. We are old and cannot remember enough to make a list going back ten years. Besides, it’s late in the year to be racking our brains, so let’s just say – we are happy with what we read this year. Wishing everyone reading this a happy reading New Year with enough wonderful books to satisfy the heart, mind and imagination.

A Dark and Creepy Tale

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  We are not too sure about the story but the kind of attention that Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo has been receiving has us seriously astounded. We are still trying to figure out how a book published at the end of October has been read by so many people and voted to be the winner of the Goodreads best fantasy book of 2019. We find this a bit dubious particularly since Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden happens to be listed in the same category. The one possible explanation that we could come up with is that perhaps it is the Yale network that has worked in Bardugo’s favour, since the book is set in Yale and the author herself is from there. Also, legions of Bardugo’s YA readers, now old enough to read this, her first adult fantasy book, might have voted based on their fondness for her YA books.
  The story centres around the magical and occult powers focused at New Haven and Yale. Nine secret societies, channelling different occult abilities, were set up more than a century ago at the University.  The societies, or houses as they are known, have wide reaching influence since their members, after graduation, go on to positions of power and money. The ninth society or ninth house is Lethe which was set up to monitor the other houses and ensure that their rituals don’t get out of hand. Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern is not the usual Yale student, considering she had dropped out of high school. She has been recruited by Lethe house because of her ability to see ghosts which abound in and around the Yale campus. She gets embroiled in the investigation of the murder of a ‘townie’ which leads her to uncover more dirty secrets of the houses and their members.
  There is murder, mayhem, gruesome rituals, blood and gore, ghosts and demons. There is also a constant mention of the difference between the wealthy, entitled students and Alex who comes from a very different background. Ninth house has been touted as Leigh Bardugos first adult fantasy book and certainly has extremely unsavoury descriptions of sexual assaults, drug abuse, self harm etc, yet the author has not been able to break away completely from a YA style of writing. Most of the characters are in their late teens or early twenties. The story is set in a college campus after all. There is a lot of darkness to the book but being grimdark and making the reader uncomfortable is not the only thing which makes for an adult fantasy. We felt that a certain amount of emotional depth was perhaps lacking. The story is interesting and readable but at times it felt like a Buffy story but without the vampires.
  Though we have said the story was interesting, the style of writing  means it’s a bit of a slog. Not a ‘I can’t put it down’ book. More of a ‘I have to make myself finish it’ book.

The fear of dreams

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 Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvateter is, not surprisingly, all about dreams, dreamers and the dreamt. This trilogy follows her earlier Raven Cycle quartet and Ronan, one of the Raven boys, takes central stage. For fans this means, sadly, no Gansey and no Blue. But Declan and Matthew Lynch, Ronan’s brothers, who were pale shadows in the Raven Cycle have been fleshed out, made more interesting and with more personality than one could have imagined.

 A mysterious shadowy organisation, which is possibly associated with the government in some way, is going around killing the dreamers who have the capability to bring back people, creatures, objects and even, in Ronan’s case, entire forests from their dreams into the real world. The organisation, believing that a dreamer will cause the apocalypse, is hunting down and indiscriminately getting rid of all of them. Ronan, for the most part, not being able to control what he brings back from his dreams, has secluded himself at The Barnes, his parents’ farm. He sees his life stretching out before him, thus confined and lonely, while his partner Adam has gone off to study at Harvard. He has always believed that apart from his father and one of the boys that he knew at school, he is the only dreamer with the capability of bringing his dreams to life until his dreams are infiltrated by the enigmatic Bryde and he is forced to set out into the world.

 The story is narrated from multiple points of view, the three main being  Ronan,  Jordan Hennessy a thief, and an art forger who has dreamt multiple copies of herself and Carmen Farooq-Lane who is hunting down the dreamers.   Maggie Stiefvater as usual writes beautifully but the beginning of the this book was a little disorienting considering the number of new characters introduced. An intriguing theme of the novel is the concept that sometime the copy, whether it be of art or of a person, can be ‘more’ than the original and takes on a life of its own and that the created has free will of the creator. A lot of fantasy novels these days have an underground market selling contraband and magical items, mostly inspired, we think by Neil Gaiman’s Floating Market in Neverwhere. The Fairy market in this book is one of the better and perhaps more Gaimanish than the ones in other books.

 The many story lines in the book managed to pull together mid-way through after which, we thought, the story really took off. But the ending felt like we had bought one of those defective prints of a book where suddenly you find pages missing and you are left not knowing what happens next and wanting to pull the sword out of Ronan’s hands and start killing someone. Stiefvater better ensure the next book is out soon.