The challenges of having a book club of two

So here we are on a Monday morning not having read the same books over the last couple of weeks and then sitting with dazed expressions over our coffee, not knowing what to review. There was lots to gossip about but very little bookish stuff. We exhausted our comparison of the Golden Globes red carpet and the Critic’s Choice red carpet, the resignation of Jacinda Ardern and a little bit of book talk about the speakers at the 2023 Jaipur Lit Fest, most of whom we had never heard of.

It just isn’t possible in a book club of two to ‘wing it’ by pretending to have read a book. The Wikipedia summary or spark notes are not enough. The other person will be able to immediately tell that you are prevaricating. Then there is often the problem of one person not turning up, in which case the discussion has to be cancelled altogether. Achieving a quorum is quite tough in the face of school exams, out station trips, holidays and basically life. Attendance is essential on a Monday morning for the club to function. Casual absenteeism is frowned upon resulting in the penalty of having to buy coffee next time. Not to mention guilt tripping for the lack of a blog post despite the ‘mostly’ in MostlyMondays. Then there is the issue that a synchronised ‘to be read’ list does not guarantee a synchronised ‘have read’ book list. We try to maintain some co ordination across genres but every once in a while the genres diverge and then discussion becomes impossible. Since we are not only a book club but also write a blog, there is the occasional issue of writer’s block which can be quite contagious. Also, since the members of the club have similar tastes, there tends to be too much consensus at times. Dissent can lead to drama, vigorous disagreements about the book of the week add spice to book club meetings. In in our club there is a complete lack of it.

So we end up doing the other stuff that book clubs do, discuss what to read next, also known as list building, drink coffee, eat a few snacks, grumble about the state of the city, the weather, global warming, food, some cribbing about authors who never finish series etc. Then we wonder whether it would make sense to add a few more people into the book club. But that idea is rejected as soon as it is voiced as being more trouble than it would be worth.

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Angels and Dragons

We reviewed Aliette de Bodard‘s House of Shattered Wings some time back and then subsequently read The House of Binding Thorns and The House of Sundering Flames, books 2 and 3 in the trilogy known as the Dominion of the Fallen. The books continue the story of a Paris devastated by war with order existing pretty much only in the houses governed by the fallen angels. The houseless are left to manage by themselves. This includes the people brought over forcibly a few generations ago from Anam which is the ancient name for Vietnam. There is also the eastern dragon kingdom which has relocated to the Seine.

In Book 2 the dragon kingdom, plagued by its internecine rebellions, seeks to ally with House Hawthorn by marrying off a Prince of the kingdom to the leader of the house. Book 3 is the culmination of the series and the power struggles between the houses. It is a strong comment on the abuse of power whether colonial or between the houses. It is also an exploration of what it means to be a true leader. Morningstar, the first amongst the Fallen once again makes an appearance. And how! The Fallen don’t remember why they fell only that they no longer have grace. They don’t much remember their God either. All they have is Morningstar who is the first and the most powerful of them. They either look for his protection or rebel against him or seek to control him, In whichever way, he pervades their consciousness and also that of the reader.

The powers of the west which are basically the Fallen have in the past conquered the lands of the east, wiped out and enslaved local cultures resulting in the withdrawal of the spiritual and magical powers of those lands. The books speak of senseless destruction and disregard for all aspects of Anam’s culture which did not benefit the houses. But this does not stop them from using and abusing the powers of another land when they can get hold of it. Enter Dan Chuay, the tiger god/spirit/manifestation with the power to basically be a nuclear weapon. He has been captured and enslaved and is, when released wanting revenge on anyone and anything in his path.

The last novel in the trilogy is a murder mystery and political potboiler rolled into one. Throw in magic of different kinds, dragons and of course Morninstar and Dan Chuay, a host of insane fallen and the story just zips along but raises numerous questions along the way. It all boils down to the one question of where do you draw the line? In their desire to make their house more powerful the leaders are willing to destroy the city which is already in tatters and everything and everyone that is not their house. Ultimately the heroes of the book are the people who are standing behind the leaders and who are willing to show more compassion and be more inclusive. They are the ones who make the difference at the end of the day along with the common people who have been subjugated.

Moonlight and Stardust

We were keen to start the new year with a light hearted book, nothing too serious which would put us in a glum mood. The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna is a book that kept cropping up in various reviews all of last year and it was present in most fantasy top ten book lists at the year end. It seemed like a good read to carry us through the close of the old year and to start the new one.

Mika Moon, in her thirties, is the youngest witch in her secret society of witches that meets once in three months. The one abiding rule of the society, as strictly enforced by their leader and Mika’s erstwhile guardian, Primrose, is that the witches must maintain absolute secrecy about their powers and not congregate unnecessarily. Meetings of witches tend to lead to outbursts of magic and this draws attention. Even though set in modern times, the memory of witch trials, drownings and burnings linger. Mika tends to cause a bit of friction since she runs a popular YouTube channel pretending to be a witch whilst actually being one.

Out of the blue a job offer arrives one day for Mika from Nowhere House, to teach three little witches ranging from 7 to 10 years who require training to harness and control their powers. She decides to accept despite knowing that it would be frowned upon by the society. At Nowhere House Mika meets the denizens, the elderly Ian who had initially approached her, his husband Ken who is Japanese and likes to garden, the cook Lucie and the librarian Jamie. Then there are the three little girls gathered from around the world, each with their own character and magical powers. Mika who has never lived anywhere long enough to grow roots is suddenly in the midst of a family.

The book is ultimately about the importance of human connections and the story is presented with a lot of diversity but it seems too deliberate at times. The novel started off beautifully with Mika making magical teas with wonderful names, moving her greenhouse, koi pond, two cauldrons and one golden retriever in her tiny little car named ‘the broomstick’. She concocts potions in her attic room in Nowhere House by gathering starlight and moonlight and talks about how intuitive the process is. Her relationship with the girls is wonderful in the way they each react to her. Despite being an only child, brought up in isolation Mika has the gumption to deal with each ones idiosyncrasies. The girls themselves are incredibly cute with names like Rosetta, Terracotta and Altamira. Their very different reactions to Mika’s arrival are also dealt with immense affection by the adults around them.

However at the end we felt the novel was a strong spell that fizzled out. It started wonderfully with all the ingredients of a magical realism novel with a lot of heart and funny moments and a pinch of romance but the second half became much more romance and the magic, the magical elements and even the girls were totally overshadowed. We don’t want to say too much about the ending but only that it seemed a little forced. All in all a light hearted book to read more for the first half and the possibilities that it missed in the second..

2022 Red Carpet

As always, we announce our book club of two annual awards for the books we have read during the year. so, here goes:

  1. The most enjoyable fantasy series we read this year. Better for all the books being read in the same year – The Scholomance series by Naomi Novik
  2. The best age is no bar book – The Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher
  3. The most magical of magical realism books – The Inheritance of Orquidia Divina by Zoraida Cordova
  4. The most different fantasy series in modern times – The Mirror Visitor series by Christelle Dabos
  5. The most unique take on humans and humanity, not to mention ‘hairy household deities’ – The Humans by Matt Haig
  6. The most poignant and amazingly written book, a perfect fit to the Pope’s statement about a ‘ famine of peace’- Apeirogon by Colum McCann
  7. The most warm hearted book – Love and Saffron by Kim Fay
  8. The most over rated book of the year – You made a Fool of Death with your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi
  9. The most flingable book – The Black Witch by Laurie Forest
  10. The most rapid dnf book by us despite rave reviews – An Ember in the Ashes by SabaaTahir

We would like thank everyone who has read our reviews in the past one year and a very special thanks to those who have liked them and also commented. We are as always open to suggestions for books that we can read. Often, in the past the best books have come to us through recommendations.

Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year and a great year for reading in 2023.

Food connects

No matter where one comes from, all that is required is a slightly open mind with regards to food and you can just travel the world without leaving home. The world becomes your plate. Love and Saffron by Kim Fay is one those books which bring to the fore the importance of food in relationships and in opening up the mind and perceptions. This is a kindly, gentle book which makes the reader feel warm hearted and hopeful in a world full of disenchantment.

The concept of food helping people to integrate, rediscover lost selves or form new personalities, is not new but in this epistolary novel, set in the early 1960s all these ideas are dealt with through letters between the fan of a weekly food column and its writer. Imogen Fortier lives on Camano Island, Washington State and writes a column involving mainly food for a local magazine. Her articles are read by Joan Bergstrom in Los Angeles since her mother subscribes to the magazine. A congratulatory letter enclosing Saffron and a recipe from Joan starts off a close friendship through correspondence between the two women despite a more than twenty year age gap. Through letters they are able to share a lot more with each other than they have with anyone else in their lives.

The letters which start off formally soon become warmer, move to a first name and then nickname basis. Their discussions of food leads each woman to set out and discover newer flavours, tastes and ingredients. For the reader it is fascinating to think that in the 1960s saffron was considered to be rare and exotic. For Imogen, who lives in a small town, the discovery of Mexican food presents considerable challenges for sourcing ingredients and Joan sets out to expand her own knowledge by visiting specialised markets. The women recount their culinary experiences to each other as well as commenting on the news of the time and their own loves and lives. This exchange of correspondence brings changes and new friends into both women’s lives and has a positive impact on their immediate families, not to mention discovery of new skills.

For the reader the book touches the heart, not just the stomach, and leaves a contented feeling which any discussion of food is wont to. An epistolary book always makes us either want to write a letter or better still receive one. It truly is a dying art and WhatsApp just does not tug the heartstrings in the same way. It is certainly a book for this season even though it’s not inherently christmasy.

Like Dreamers do

The Dreamers trilogy is a follow-on from the Raven Cycle quartet, by Maggie Stiefvater. In Greywaren, the third book in the trilogy, the saga of the Lynch brothers continues, all questions but one are answered and it’s all neatly tied up. There is really not much we can say about the book without giving away huge spoilers but we liked the way Maggie Stiefvater managed to tie up a lot of loose ends. The book jumps back and forth between the present and the time the Lynch brothers’ parents moved to America, bought their house, the Barns, and dreamt a life for themselves. 

The series started with Ronan, who in the earlier series turned out to be a person capable of bringing objects and sometimes even people back from his dreams. In the Dreamers trilogy we are told there are a lot more people like Ronan and there are people as well as animals who have been brought into the world from dreams. There were also a group of people known as the moderators who are identifying dreamers and killing them because of a prophecy that a dreamer would end the world in flames. The first two books basically set out the entire underground society and eco system of the dreamers and the dreamt. When a dreamer dies, his or her dreamt people also fall asleep. The one way to keep them awake is through objects known as ‘sweetmetals’. These are basically extraordinary works of art imbued with considerable emotion by the artist and which have extraordinary powers.

Primarily, like we mentioned at the start, the trilogy is about the Lynch brothers. Declan is normal, Ronan a dreamer and the youngest, Matthew, a dreamt one. The character of the eldest sibling, Declan, whom we always thought was a bit too straight-laced, stiff upper lipped and cold is explained from the perspective of his childhood. We also got the feeling that this book is really Declan’s book and he is its hero. Unexpectedly there is a lot of interdimensional stuff which ties into the dreams. And there are many reveals about all the characters and of course about Ronan, leading to a completely new perspective. 

The series as a whole is a wonderful allegory for art giving life to dreams. Not just any art but the kind of art which has that certain something or the ‘je ne sais quoi’ quality to it, making it inexplicably stand out or draw people to it.

Though the story wound up with fairly satisfactory explanations and conclusion, we did feel at the end as though something was missing. It lacked the usual Maggie Stiefvater flair and style. We were worried about what the conclusion of the series would mean for characters we have known and followed over the Raven Cycle quartet and the Dreamers trilogy and were worried about possible devastation, but the heartstrings remained intact. 

The foundation matters

Can one live in luxury on a rotten foundation? Can a person enjoy the fruits of power when the means of obtaining it are wrong in every way? Naomi Novik‘s third and final book in the Scholomance series, The Golden Enclaves, is all about foundations – of people, of societies and of living spaces.

Last week we reviewed the first two books in the Scholomance the series which we had read earlier. The second book ending on a killer cliff hanger had us tearing out our hair and wanting to fling things at the author. We even scrounged about on the net and found a free download of the first chapter of book three but it did not do anything to alleviate the suspense. Fortunately The Golden Enclaves was released at the end of September and we managed to get hold of it and finally read it.

Warning – This review is going to have spoilers for the first two books!

At the outset, we have to say we are in awe of Naomi Novik’s imagination. How does one think up a world like this? It is so detailed and so different. The characters, both good and bad are so unusual, as are the horrific mals. Like most fantasy there is a clear line drawn between good and evil but there is also a compromise which is derived from practicality and how much evil does good have to put up with for the sake of accepting the inevitable. After all people are people. We loved the writing style and the book stayed with us long after we finished it.

El had managed to band together her friends at the end of book 2 and gotten everyone out of the school safely except for Orion who had pushed her out at the end and remained to fight the mawmouth ( the biggest, ugliest and hideousest type of mal around). El comes back into the real world, reeling from the loss of Orion and is pretty much immediately thrown into the deep end with enclaves being targeted, destroyed and on the verge of war. Much of the storyline from the earlier books comes together and Novik manages to explain many things which had been bothering us as readers in the first two books. There is a lot about how the magical community live in the enclaves, the questionable choices made by the privileged to maintain their lifestyles. Those who are on the outside are aspiring to get into the enclaves no matter how they are treated and how creepy the whole set up is. El’s mother was one of the few who knew she couldn’t live in an atmosphere like that. For a very good reason!

Usually the stories which captivate a reader the most, are the stories of sacrifice. They are the ones that last and stay with you for the longest time. Harry Potter’s mother’s sacrifice in saving him resonates through seven books. El’s father’s sacrifice in saving her and her mother is a recurring theme in this trilogy. There is something about the ultimate sacrifice that makes for a strong corner stone of a story. Like Aslan said, sacrifice invokes deeper magic from the before the dawn of time.

The book was wonderful. We know a lot of readers have had a problem with the whole El – Liesel relationship but we just put it down to Novik pandering to the requirements of publishers by belatedly inserting something which just doesn’t fit into the flow or the narrative. It is so unnecessary that it was obviously done under pressure. We just wish publishers would stay away from storylines and not insist on ‘requirements’ that jar the reading experience. A book like this will sell regardless.

The Golden Enclaves is a wonderful conclusion, fast paced, emotionally moving, about friendships and family that stand by you in your hour of need. More importantly it is about doing things the right way without causing harm. El’s upbringing by her mother stands her in good stead. El also finally acknowledges that it is because of the discipline instilled by her mother that she constantly pulls back from misusing her immense power.

We will definitely be reading this series again as they are not the kind of books which can be easily set aside. But please can we get an edition of The Golden Enclaves with the unnecessary bits deleted?

The edges of darkness

We didn’t read the Scholomance series by Naomi Novik for the longest time since the thought of another book/series set in a wizard school was tedious. What else can anyone write after seven years of Hogwarts? The whole thing had been overdone and we couldn’t even understand why a writer like Naomi Novik had fallen into that trap. But, oh us of little faith. Its precisely because the books are written by Novik that we should have known they would be mind blowing. She has taken the genre and completely turned it on its head.

A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate are the first two books in the Scholomance series set in the Scholomance school for kids with magical capabilities. The school is supposed to help them survive the early years which are particularly dangerous for magical kids when the deadly mals (demon like creatures) which sense magic, go after the soft targets which are basically children. The school is set in the void and can only be entered at fourteen when the children are ready to be trained. Once there the only way of leaving is by surviving graduation by fighting through a room full of mals. There are no adults, no outside communication and classes are conducted by the school which is semi sentient. There are no friends, only assets and allies. The mals, Novik’s very imaginatively constructed demon like creatures, creepy and ever present, are ready to pounce.

Novik’ s protagonist is called (we love the name) Galadriel, El for short. She is not a typical hero because as a child she was prophesied to have become a dark lord, causing large scale death and destruction to the magical community and the enclaves they live in. Most people are able to sense her incredible strength and innate darkness which makes her a bit of an outcast. Having been brought up by her mother, a hippy type magical healer, living in a yurt on a commune in Wales, El has developed a conscience and keeps trying to keep her dark side at bay. Her biggest problem is Orion Lake from the New York enclave, who keeps on saving her when she doesn’t really need to be saved. Orion Lake is a bit like an inverse Draco Malfoy. He is good looking, from a powerful magical family and from the most powerful enclave, surrounded by kids from his enclave who all love him. But he has zero arrogance and goes around saving everyone.

The books are some of the most diverse that we have read in a long time, at least racially. None of it seemed to us to have been stuck on just for the sake of it or because of the demands of political correctness. Most of it seemed quite real. El herself is half Indian and being Indians we found the things said about the Indian side of her family and also about her friend Aadhya, quite authentic. There was very little indeed which could be said that was jarring. We know people have criticised the lack of details about students from different parts of the world but not every character can be fleshed out in detail beyond their relevance to the main characters. As it is, the world building is amazing and incredibly detailed. The friendships and bonds that are created at the school stage of life, that too in an environment of extreme stress are a pleasure to read. El is a gutsy character who despite her power and ability to attract the most destructive spells tries her best to live according to some principles. The books are written in first person and El’s sarcasm and attitude make her a funny and enjoyable narrator.

Our main grouse really came from the ending of the second book which is the most HORRENDOUS cliff hanger we have seen in a long, long time. We think Novik, in the process of keeping her protagonist from becoming a dark, destructive force, went over to the dark side herself. Never have we wanted so much to fling a book at the author! At least we only had a few weeks until the third book came out. We pity those who had to wait for more than a year to find out what happens next. We have the third book in our possession now and will be reviewing it next week. We just hope the last one is as immersive and fun as the first two.

Pirates and traders

Fantasy books generally tend to be about kings, queens, chosen ones, dark Lords, wizards etc, etc. Occasionally one comes across which has none of those and is instead all about pirates (yay!).

Fable and its sequel Namesake by Adrienne Young, to add to the fun, are a duology so one is not expected to trawl through a story which is stretched across volumes with no end in sight. The story follows the eponymous Fable who at the start of the novel is dumped by her father, Saint, a famous pirate/trader, after her mother’s death in a shipwreck. He leaves her on a barren island populated by the most unsavoury cutthroat characters. The people on the island survive by diving for gemstones found on undersea reef loads and trading for them with visiting ships. Fable is good at this as, unknown to herself, she is a gem sage; a person capable of hearing the sounds made by different stones and thereby identifying them. Fable manages to make her way off the island on the ship Marigold by making a bargain with it’s captain, West and goes in search of her father in order to get some answers and her inheritance. Along the way she makes a place for herself on the Marigold, makes allies and begins to feel at home. There is murder, adventure, shipwrecks, lost treasure and storms on the sea. Through it all we have Fable a survivor, trying to understand the circumstances of her life and the behaviour of her father.

The second book explores Fables powers as a gem sage. She and the crew of the Marigold have to deal with the biggest gem trader, Holland, who is essentially a mafia boss. Holland, is intent on getting hold of Fable and also has conspired to destroy Saint. Fable’s relationship with her father dominates both books. There is the mystery of why she was abandoned and his general attitude towards her even though there is romance and friendship also but the main relationship around which the story turns is that of Fable and Saint. There is repeated mention of how much Saint loved Isolde, Fable’s mother which makes his behaviour towards his daughter even more inexplicable. Fable’s feelings of betrayal are keenly felt by the reader and a constant sticking point through the two books. It is only gradually through the two books that the author provides the real reasons for Saint’s behaviour. There is more politics rather than swashbuckling in the second book but fun nonetheless. The idea of life aboard a ship is very appealing and though we read this duology sometime back, the atmosphere created by it still hasn’t lost its magic. In fact, other than Fable’s ability to hear gems there is no other magic in the world building but the story is compelling and the protagonist is gutsy.

Inherited magic

There are different types of inheritance, the most dreamt of ones being those that bring riches. Inheritance isn’t always in material terms. Family traits like the colour of the eyes, hair, quirk of an eyebrow, dimples etc. are also inherited. Then there are those inheritances which can be quite uncomfortable and the inheritors may not know what to do with them. Such is the story of the family of Orquidea Montoya. The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina by Zoraida Cordova is story about a family ruled by the eponymous matriarch living outside a small town in the United States called Four Rivers. She arrived there one day along with her husband, having walked all the way from Equador, and immediately put down roots on a tract of land which till then had been a barren wasteland. Overnight a house appears and the land around it turns lush and green with water bodies appearing on it. All attempts by the townsfolk to brand her a witch, not surprisingly, come to nothing.

Over the years Orquidea married three more times, had numerous children and grandchildren. The Montoya family scatters, as families are wont to do, but at the beginning of the novel they are all called back by Orquidea to collect their inheritance. It is Marimar, one of the granddaughters, who inherits the house and land but all the others, at some point, are forced to acknowledge the magic in their inheritance. There is a family curse, a mysterious figure stalking the family members, family disputes, starlight, dragonflies and hummingbirds. The story moves back and forth from the time that Orquidea was young and Marimar’s inheritance of Four Rivers. There is a mystery from another time which is gradually revealed. The book is a combination of magic, mystery and myth interwoven into the story of a family and of three cousins in particular.

Magical realism is always fun to read and the story flows along well, swinging between places, times and generations. There is a lot about family and the importance of it as well as about human compulsions and how that can take people down so many different paths in their lives. Well worth a read just for the strangeness of the story interspersed with the very familiar emotions of fondness and exasperation that family members can feel for each other.