For the curious

Susanna Clarke‘s first book was huge in size and hugely successful but we found it was not for us. Piranesi, her second book, written after many year’s hiatus is a little book which lands the reader in a strange, surreal existence where one doesn’t know what is happening or who the narrator, the eponymous Piranesi is. And yet one keeps reading through additions to Piranesi’s journals, strangely dated with the days and months past the day the albatrosses came to some hall or the other.

Piranesi is apparently only one of two human occupants in a series of massive buildings and halls populated by innumerable statues with the sea having submerged the lower levels and coming in further up during high tides. The only other life is fish in the sea and birds in some of the halls. Piranesi wanders through recording whatever he sees and mapping not just the labyrinthine halls but also the stars and the tides. Twice a week he meets the man he calls the Other since he is the only other live person in the place. One gets the impression that the Other is a coldly, detached person in contrast to Piranesi who is quite affectionate and grateful to all the little things the Other brings him. The reader’s curiosity as to where the labyrinth is situated, who the Other is and why Piranesi is there, carries one through the first half of the book when not much is happening. In fact Piranesi is the one who seems contented and on home ground whereas the reader is lost and confused. Fortunately the book is short and this feeling of confusion doesn’t last too long else it might have gotten boring and we don’t know if we would have had the staying power to see it through.

The novel, published timely during various lockdowns, provided us with another perspective on the concept of isolation and how one can keep going with a sense of routine and maintaining an aura of curiosity and wonderment even with daily, mundane occurrences. There is also something to be said about making up stories in one’s mind. Piranesi takes comfort from the stories and connections he has imagined between himself and the statues.

A strange , mystical kind of book, which is one of those rare books that transcend genre. We can’t bring ourselves to call it fantasy as it is a weird mixture of history, magic , psychology and transgressive philosophy. The novel has received rave reviews and is certainly worth reading because it is so very different to anything one can imagine.

The truth hidden in the tale

“Proper witching is just a conversation with that red heartbeat, which only ever takes three things: the will to listen to it, the words to speak with it, and the way to let it into the world. The will, the words, and the way…” (The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow)

Nursery rhymes, fairytales, myths and urban legends are on the face of it just stories. But every story contains a grain of truth or some guidance or provides a direction. It’s a way of hiding knowledge in a simple tale, conveniently modified, where the unsuspecting would not think to look for it. The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow is a story about the truth hidden in tales and that a story is not necessarily just a story but a camouflage. Set in an alternative reality the novel combines the repercussions of the witch trials in Salem with the suffragette movement a few centuries later.

Salem was burnt to the ground by the Inquisitors and a New Salem built as a counter, to be godly and everything else that old Salem was not. In this new Salem the three Eastwood sisters find themselves pulled together during a suffragette demonstration when a black tower momentarily appears out of nowhere and magic permeates the air. There is Bella, the eldest sister, a librarian and seeker of knowledge and collector of tales. The second sister Agnes, the most beautiful of the three works in a mill and tries initially to keep a low profile and resists the magic for the sake of her unborn daughter. June is the last sister, the wild and unruly one who seeks to raise hell at every given opportunity.

Everything important for magic comes in threes including the will, the word and the way required to let it in. The Eastwood sisters find themselves the focal point of a rebellion to re empower women. The rebellion attracts women from all classes, colours and orientation, waiting for someone to ignite the raw material within them. Fundamentally this is a book about the rage of women who have in many small and large ways been sidelined, suppressed and made to feel worthless. Any woman with some knowledge and capability, attitude or found providing support to other women is branded as dangerous and a witch. So ultimately it is also a book about the insecurities of men.

Harrow has beautifully interwoven all the stories and rhymes that we take for granted and shown that there is always more than meets the eye in every tale and there is always another side to things; that conventions must every once in a while be deconstructed in order to see what is really behind them. So it is in this story where there is a hidden truth about the centuries of subjugation which continue in some form or the other even in modern times and how hard fought is every drop of equality won.

The meaning of crazy

Thinking differently, being non conformist, having strange ideas, constructing strange houses, naming your child Balakrishna just because she is born blue are all symptoms of an artistic, thinking, intellectual personality? Or just sheer crazy? Where’d you go Bernadette by Maria Semple makes the reader ask these questions over and over again. There is no doubt that Bernadette, the eponymous architect turned stay at home mum, an agoraphobic and social recluse is certainly on the far side of unusual. But does that mean she is a few pennies short of a pound? Or just a person requiring more understanding?

The book is narrated largely by Bernadette ‘s rather brilliant daughter Bee ( short for Balakrishna) who is on the verge of finishing middle school in Seattle but looking forward to moving to boarding school. The entire story is told through journal entries of Bee and emails, letters and notes of other characters. Bee’s adored mother is as unconventional as they get, raising the ire of the PTA attending, cookie baking mothers who cannot comprehend why a stay at home mother would not be interested in participating in PTA activities. The underlying tone in the entire story is also about the larger than life, all pervading presence of Microsoft (where Bee’s father works) in Seattle with the book constantly poking fun at those who work there.

Everything, including Bernadette starts to unravel when Bee picks Antarctica as a family holiday destination. The book deals with so many issues regarding mental health and its impact on family members in a light but not flippant way. What makes it really interesting is the thought that those who are rigidly focused on conforming could come across being as unhinged, if not more, than the non conformists. And those who claim to have pretensions to an artistic ability are not necessarily appreciative of art when they see it. So ultimately, what is ‘unusual’?

All the questions in our review itself are indicative of the questions raised in the reader’s mind during the story. Semple’s style of writing ensures that the issues in the book are never overbearing nor does the book come across as being preachy. In fact, it is far from it in the witty and satirical treatment of the story which is ultimately a feel good story. We read the book while coming into the new year and it helped us feel hopeful. A nice tone to begin the year with.

A solid mystery

At 900 pages Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith(JK Rowling), is a tome of a book and rather daunting in the physical form. It could easily serve the dual purpose of reading and weight lifting. But Rowling’s writing being what it is, the reader is immediately drawn into the book in a strangely comforting way. Even though a murder mystery is never really comforting. Perhaps it is the combination of a familiar writing style which many of us have become accustomed to over the years and the two detectives who we have become familiar with and whose story line has developed over the last four books. We have said this before and we say it again that Robin Ellacott is basically a grown up and muggle Hermione Granger. Only less bossy. But they are both equally down to earth, practical, intelligent and dependably capable people whom the reader can easily identify with.

It is very rare that an entire story (that too of 900 pages) is based around a cold case murder which happened 40 years previously. Strike and Robin’s firm have been hired by the daughter of a doctor who mysteriously disappeared without a trace one night when the daughter was still a baby. The police had concluded that she had been the victim of a serial killer who was caught but enjoyed playing mind games and did not reveal who all his victims had been. The doctor’s body was never found so the doubt remained as to what had actually happened to her.

The firm is much more busy in this book and has more employees which means there are a lot of other investigations going on which occupy both Robin and Strike. There is a lot more detail about their personal lives, with Strike’s aunt being unwell on one side and constant badgering from his father’s family on the other. There is also a lot more development of the two detectives’ inter personal relationship. None of it however felt out of tune with the book or the main story which keeps one engaged as there is a constant niggling in the reader’s mind of the need to know what had happened all those years ago. The book is typically well crafted in the sense that JKR. through Creed the serial killer, plays mind games with the reader.

We have no idea what all the controversy surrounding the book was about even before it was published. Some one has to be a killer in a murder mystery but how can that be considered a comment on an entire group, race, classification or gender of people? It seems to have become fashionable to do JKR bashing these days, that too by people who leave one star on their review without even having read the book or after reading one page. How is that a book review?

We certainly enjoyed the story and look forward to the next instalment.

Stacked lives

How often do we regret not having done something and wondering where our life would have headed if we had chosen differently? And what if all those lives with the different choices were stacked up on top of each other and we could access them to see how they had turned out? Matt Haig‘s The Midnight Library is all about visiting those lives where the choice had been different.

Nora Seed, who had studied philosophy at university but is working at a music store, in her thirties has reached a stage in her life where she no longer sees a point to it. One night on the cusp between life and death she arrives at the Midnight Library where time stands still and all the books are the lives she could have led if she had made different choices at each stage. Populated only by the librarian, a mysterious figure whose conversations with Nora gradually reveal to her what the library is all about as she confronts the regrets she has about her life.

This is a book to be read by everyone who has ever said ‘what if’, which is basically, well, everyone. A melding of physics and philosophy, the concept of parallel universes/dimensions and parallel lives, but woven through a simple story of human regrets and wondering. Which, when one comes to think of it, is really not that simple but therein lies the beauty of Haig’s writing because ultimately the book is eminently readable. After completing it we have recommended it to everyone we know and it has become one of our favourite gifting books. These days if someone is agonising over choices that they have to make, we tell them to read The Midnight Library. A book to make the reader sit and think and which provides a perspective that one might not necessarily have thought of. Lovely.

What can we expect?

Will things be better just because we switched to a different calendar? This is what people are hoping, helped perhaps by vaccines around the corner. We are still too dazed to expect anything, not with the direction the covid numbers are heading around the world.

We did for a moment think that all the concerns and worries of last year had perhaps made us better people. We skipped our usual end of the year bash of – what’s his name? – Oh yeah, Patrick Rothfuss, for once again failing to complete the last book in the Kingkiller chronicles trilogy. It has now been 9 years since book two and we have sort of given up on ever reading book three. So we kept our peace and didn’t feel compelled to say anything. But coming across an article in the Wired magazine recapping the best fantasy of 2020, made us feel quite gleeful. They have managed to quite mercilessly rip Patrick to shreds on behalf of all readers and also now his publisher who has joined the ranks of the disgruntled. So much for our sagacity. We certainly haven’t changed.

We are hoping however that this year will be better as far as our reading goes and that we are not too stuck up on reading only happy things. Following is a list of books that we think (and not only fantasise about reading) that we may head towards this year:

  1. Helen Lowe’s Wall of Night series book 4 will hopefully be published. We will have to re read the three earlier books since its been a while and we have forgotten.

2. Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell? We gave it a miss last year because it is not uplifting pandemic reading. But it has been on all the ‘must read’ lists, so hopefully we will manage it in 2021.

3. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Not read last year purely because the library took its own time in getting it.

4. Christopher Paolini’s To sail in a Sea of Stars, because how can that title not appeal?

5. Alix E Harrow’s The Once and Future Witches because we loved The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

6. Alienate de Bodard’s The House of Sundering Flames, book 3 in the Dominion of the Fallen trilogy. Perhaps we will read it this year having read the first two in the series last year. We had to read book 1 all over again in order to read book 2. Why Amazon insists on keeping the prices so high on these books, we just can’t understand.

7. And any books of Brandon Sanderson and V E Schwab that may be coming out this year.

Hopefully there will be many more readable books that we don’t know of yet and which we will come across during the course of the year.

One thing we do know is that fantasy and science fiction readers are satisfied with alternate realities in the pages of their books and do not feel the need to create them in the actual world or fall for alternate realities touted by others through their tweets and take them for real. We always knew Twitter was dangerous in the wrong hands. Read more sci fi/ fantasy, people. You will be better adjusted.

Of course, we do realise that we have contradicted ourselves since in the first paragraph we mention not having become better people despite being readers of fantasy. But there are always exceptions when it comes to writers who write gripping books, thereby raising expectations and then let the readers down by not completing the tale. We think the readers, having invested time and money on the first two books in a trilogy, should be entitled to insist on specific performance from the author, to completing the series in reasonable time.

Rolled up carpet

Our last post of the year is normally a red carpet of the books we have read through the year and awards given by us for the ones we have loved and the ones we have hated. We have a lot of fun doing this post but this year we somehow are not able to drum up the enthusiasm. Having given it considerable thought we realised that as much as we have enjoyed some books and disliked others, we are not able to relive any of those emotions as it is all coloured by what is happening around in the world. So the red carpet remaines unrolled and with a heavy heart we have no awards to hand out this year except perhaps to PG Woodhouse for being the ‘go to’ writer able to provide the kind of light hearted escapism in a manner no one else can.

Hoping that even the reading experience improves in 2021 and we are not limited in the way we have been this year by not wanting to read tragic books, dystopian stories, adventure stories, travel or thrillers. New experiences have never been put on hold the way they were this year.

Wishing everyone and ourselves a better reading year than this one.

Limited spaces

We are usually happy sitting in a corner and reading a book as long as we don’t have to see anyone else, so we didn’t realise how difficult pandemic ‘stay at home’ is for people in the city. Recently a kid, who went out of town to a resort nearby, remarked what a relief it was to not see buildings around and to just be able to run without having to stop of for traffic and other city obstacles. That was an eye opener. We never realised that city children felt constricted by the city. Or perhaps it’s only now because there are very few outdoor activities and everyone is packed at home with the entire family. The times are such that possibly even an agoraphobic dreams of running wild in wide open spaces. 

Life has become limited in many ways, other than walks in the park or in the neighbourhood, visiting grocery stores and vegetable markets, we are really not going anywhere. For a lot of people even work is happening online and one tends to think twice before visiting friends. Recently, for one of us, going to a shop to buy a pair of flip flops felt intrepid. Oh the joy of trying on shoes! perhaps more than was absolutely necessary were pulled off the shelves and tried. And then there was a visit to The Body Shop – we have all forgotten what a sensory experience it is to walk into one of those. After a hiatus, stepping into a place like that one is hit by the smells and colours. But sadly there is no tactile experience since trials of their creams and lotions are not permitted. We never realised how wonderful is the feeling of shopping in an actual shop and not just online. 

We have even been limited on our Monday meeting spots though we have now been occasionally meeting. The choice of places is restricted to one or two at the most. No one wants to go and sit in an unventilated, air conditioned environment. We find that we are most comfortable meeting in places like Socialize, the neighbourhood (for one of us) coffee shop which happens to be a rooftop establishment – the breeze blows through it and the food is worth trying. 

Our only grouse is that they have a world map on one wall with the question ‘where do you wanna go next’ in big letters. A bit like rubbing salt into our wounds considering just getting there and ordering snacks is an adventure for us. 

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.