Looking both ways

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

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

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

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

Colourful gossip

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

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

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

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

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

Picture perfect

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

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

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

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

A quiet summer read

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

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

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

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

A flaming good read

The pandemic has by and large played havoc with our reading habits. As we mentioned in the previous post, the lack of time and the sombre mood all around has meant that we found it easier to indulge in pulp fiction and fantasy, mostly YA and keep our already frayed nerves as much cushioned as possible. But at long last after months of eyeing it, we picked up an epic fantasy trilogy which is not YA. It re emphasised to us the difference between YA and those written for adults; the nuances and complexity of the story line are so much more involved and one can truly sink ones teeth into such a trilogy. The Winnowing Flame trilogy (The Ninth Rain, The Bitter Twins, The Poison Song) by Jen Williams brought us back to the pleasure of books well written, for mature readers and without any concessions made towards YA readers.

Along with humans, the planet of Sarn is occupied by the dwindling population of Eborans who were long lived and sustained by the massive tree Ygseril standing in the centre of their land and which they always considered to be their god. The sap of the tree is what always gave them their super human strength and longevity. The planet has over time been attacked by monstrous aliens known as the Jure’lia, who are basically as mean and rotten as aliens can get. With each attack the tree god releases a number of pods, known as rain, which contain war beasts of different  varieties to help the Eborans defend the planet. After the particularly vicious battles of the 8th Rain, the tree god has died, the Eborans no longer invincible are also dying off and circumstances have led to mistrust between the Eborans and humans. Lady Vincenza (Vintage) de Grazon is a noble woman, adventurer of considerable means who likes to travel around Sarn studying the fallen Jure’lia remains in the company of her Eboran bodyguard Tormalin. They are joined by the runaway Fell witch – Noon whose winnowfire producing abilities make her a valuable travelling companion.

The trilogy defies the conventional boxing in by genre as there is fantasy and science fiction, with some elements of horror thrown in. The story runs through an entire gamut of characters and situations. There are the nasty, world destroying aliens and their behemoth like space ships, the massive civilisation sustaining tree, which even in its name harks back to Ygdrasil of Norse mythology, the Eborans are a sort of a cross over between elves and vampires, there are flame throwing witches, dragons, griffins, giant flying bats and long lost islands. Williams’ writing however, is effortless and inventive, the reader does not at any time feel that there is any rehashing of tried and tested tropes nor is there any disorientation with the multiple genres. In fact there is no time to mull over genres because of the pace of the story. Multiple, parallel story lines run through the books, from the ruins of Ebora with its dead tree god and its diseased and dying population; the Winnowry, a mad cult like organisation with its captive witches who are exploited under the guise of religion, to the remains of the fallen Jure’lia ships scattered across the planet, mutating the flora and fauna around them and creating pockets of subverted land. Travel becomes dangerous with the number of wild mutations outside of cities. The main worry for the people is that with the tree god dead, there are no more war beasts and with the Eborans diminished in numbers, the planet is left undefended for any subsequent attacks.

The character of Vintage is one of the most wonderful we have read in a long while. To have a protagonist who is over forty in age, an adventurer and researcher, but grounded in reality, provides an unusual perspective  and voice to the story. What really distinguishes these books from YA fantasy is not the blood and gore or the bad language which is usually the case but the adult reactions to situations. Even Noon, who could technically be the protagonist of a YA book is mature beyond her years and isn’t all about flinging flames and burning up the land. Her reactions for the most part are mature and responsible, adding years to her character. She certainly seems older than Tormalin who is four hundred years old. But that could just be a man thing.

We have read so much pulp fantasy during the lockdowns, this trilogy brought us back to a reading normal. It helped that we had all the three books in our hand else we might have thought quite differently about it. The cliff hangers of the first two books might have made us want to fling them at the next war beast coming our way.

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.