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. 

Too little story

This book is obviously set in an alternate universe because it is ideally inclusive in every way. No one in the book blinks at women cardinals, persons of colour in positions of power and the hot blooded Musketeers having a number of women in their ranks. Also the only hint of romance in the story is in a gay relationship. 

The majority of Angel Mage by Garth Nix is set in an alternate France like country. Each country in this world has a guardian archangel with other angels of differing powers under the archangel. Those with mage powers can summon the angels, with the use of icons, for their own purposes. In the country of Ystara, around 150 years back, the archangel Pallenial was subverted by the angel mage Lilliath, leading to magic either turning Ystarans into beasts or giving them the ash plague. After this, Pallenial disappeared leaving the Ystarans without any answers regarding what had happened and helpless without recourse to angelic magic. 

The surviving Ystarans had to flee to neighbouring countries before they sealed their borders, fearing the spread of the ash plague. The Ystarans ended up becoming reviled and second class citizens in these countries, waiting to be rescued by Lilliiath who was supposed to be reborn and lead them back to their land. In Sarance (the alternative France) there are four young people who are key to the revival of Pallenial and somehow connected to Lilliath. And thus the story continues.

The premise is interesting and the magic system new and unusual. But the problem lies with the pace. By the time an accord is reached between the factions of the Queen’s Musketeers, the King’s guards and the Cardinal’s Pursuivants, to lead an expedition to Yastara and the story picks up, it is over within the next few chapters. There is adventure, intrigue, politics, the interesting magic system (although a bit dubious when it comes to forcefully summoning angels to carry out mundane tasks) but the world building takes far too long and we spent more than two thirds of the book wondering where it was all headed. A certain amount of boredom set in. Had it been any other author, we might even have given up part of the way through but because it was Garth Nix, we kept reading, expecting more from the story. Not a patch on the Sabriel and the Old Kingdom Series by Nix.

Stabbed


Seriously how much is 2020 going to land on us? How long are we supposed to put up with all the nonsense coming our way this year? The misery just keeps piling on.

When BBC America first announced the on screen adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Watch series, about the Discworld night watch, our natural tendency initially was to be sceptical. But we saw some of the cast photos and even though Lord Vetinari was a woman, we did our best to keep an open mind and wished them all the best. After all, a very decent and enjoyable adaptation of Sir Terry and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens had us feeling encouraged. 

But hell fire and damnation – who let a bunch of idiots anywhere near Sir Terry’s books? 2020 strikes again! We watched the trailer of The Watch, the worst, miserable travesty ever, and decided that someone had it in for Sir Terry’s reputation and/or his readers. This is a perfect example of how to take a beloved series of books, the universe it is about, characters with amazing depth and stories addressing all types of issues faced by the real world and then turn it into an idiotic mish mash of nonsense and half baked ideas. All probably done by people who have most likely never gone near any of the 41 Discworld books. Like Granny Weatherwax said “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but it is not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.” The trailer leads one to think that the TV series has been made by a bunch of ignoramuses. For a series of books which boast of 40 million readers across the world and have been translated into 37 languages, any televisation should be done only by three categories of people – 1) By the novelist, 2) by a fan and 3) by someone who has at least read the books and made an attempt to absorb their ethos. This was so bad that we initially confused Vimes for the bumbling Rhincewind!

It is almost as if a bunch of crazies sat down and decided that it would be a good idea to replace Sir Terry’s brilliant imagination and humour with their own limited imagination and slapstick geared towards making money. In Moving Pictures, which was the Discworld satire on the movie industry, the producers of said pictures were very aptly described by Sir T P – “They want dancing girls! They want thrills! They want elephants! They want people falling off roofs! They want dreams! The world is full of little people with big dreams!

Watching the trailer, we had a very palpable physical sensation of being stabbed. The best thing about the trailer is the comments on YouTube. The readers are not happy.

‘It looks worse than you can imagine!’
‘I can imagine some pretty bad things!’
‘That’s why I said worse!’ (Moving Pictures)

How did this happen? And why was it allowed. Maybe because it is BBC America but we think we are going to ban BBC wholesale and remove the app from our phones.

Woe betide those who have done this to the devoted readers of Sir Terry. May they forever have to eat Dibbler’s suspect pies. And we are just going to stick to re reading the books.

A quest for magic


The fictional country of Orisha is set in a parallel Africa, where magic has been wiped out and the Maji, the people who wielded it have been decimated by their autocratic ruler. A story about adventure, about re connecting with who you are and your legacy, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is the first book in the Legacy of Orisha trilogy. 

Zelie, by virtue of her tell tale white hair, would have grown up to become a maji before the disappearance of magic. Instead she is one of the reviled ‘maggots’ – people who carry the potential of being magic bearers. Zelie, along with her brother Tzain and Amar, is sent on a journey to re connect with the Gods and attempt to re ignite the magic in the world, while collecting the necessary ingredients for it along the way.

As YA fantasy goes the book is initially fast paced and involving. The concept of different kinds of magic being connected to different gods and being bestowed on humankind by them, makes for interesting reading. Tomi Adeyemi is a Nigerian American author who, we are told, has drawn inspiration from West African mythology for her story, which is probably why the premise of the book seemed a little different and fresh to us. For the most part the plot of the book kept us engaged. The characters however are another story. They were too adolescent in their behaviour for the kind of responsibilities placed on them. They come across as too indecisive and inconsistent for us as readers to rely on them to take us safely through the narrative.

What irritated us most about the book was the need to fit in a fight to the death, gladiator style contest in the plot that has already been done, well… to death, by The Goblet of fire and The Hunger Games. Enough already. It is not a compulsory element for YA fantasy to be complete. It’s almost as if creative writing courses have made it a part of the engaging plot checklist or something.

Children of Blood and Bone while starting off very promisingly, for us ended up in the category of – a readable book without being a must read.

Escaping a pandemic

Edge of the seat! What’s that? No thank you. 

Exciting twists and turns? – We’ll do without, thanks. 

Dystopian? – Not in a million years. 

Race against time – Give us a break! 

The usual fantasy blurbs are just too off putting for us right now. And any book that is compared to the Hunger Games or a dystopian fantasy where the world’s population has been decimated by a ravaging disease, needs to be flung with all the force at one’s command.

The mind of a fantasy reader is usually hyper flexible, it can bend, warp, accept alternate realities, deal with magic, different worlds and an entire gamut of non human characters. There is very little that feels strange or unacceptable to such a reader in the normal course of things. We have heard people say that they can’t bear Harry Potter because the books seem so unreal. Whereas we feel that Harry Potter verges on magical realism. Because of its ability to transport the reader to another world, in times of extreme stress, fantasy offers escapism of the sort that cannot be offered by any other type of fiction

But then there is stress and there is pandemic stress. The latter, we have come to realise is quite overpowering. The usual capability of the reader’s mind to circumnavigate stressful situations and embed itself in the book just does not seem to work. We suddenly find that books which we would normally devour and finish off in a couple of days are being kept aside every time one of the main characters faces a difficulty. As a result, our reading habits have changed dramatically. The ability to read at a stretch and enjoy the adventure in the story seems to have deserted us. We want to read peaceful stuff these days. Books about gardening do well, but even there, when they start mentioning aphids and spider mites, we switch off. We need our books to provide the comfort and certainty that the world does not have right now. Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Uncertainty does not prevail as far as reading habits are concerned. 

We did however find one or two books which were pretty much perfect for these times. The Sorcery and Cecilia series by Particia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer is one such series – a cross between a Regency novel and a fantasy P G Wodehouse, being populated with enough managing aunts who are definitely not gentlemen. The books are light hearted with the just the right amount of absurd to keep one relaxed. Re reads of the Chrestomanci series and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones also work as does the Belgariad series by David Eddings and any of the Terry Pratchett’s.

With the stress of the pandemic combined with the absolute lack of leadership in the world right now, the reading mind craves a Merlin or a Gandalf or a Dumbledore, a Belgarath and Polgara. People who know what they are doing and can take charge of the story, enabling the reader to sit back and know that things will work out. 

The mind needs stories that comfort and undulate gently through summer landscapes or winters in front of large fire places, with hot chocolate and nothing lurking in the shadows. In fact, just cancel the shadows altogether. Let there be light.