The satisfaction of binge reading

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  While everyone is busy binge watching TV series on Netflix and Amazon Prime, we spent this month enjoying a bout of binge reading. When we started Maggie Stiefvater‘s The Raven Boys, the first book in the series, we hadn’t realised that all the four books in the The Raven Cycle had already been published. Oh the joy of finding out that one can read the entire series in one go! It just added to the excitement. So there were the two of us indulging in a serious case of parallel binge reading, getting irritated with anyone and everything taking our attention away from the books and messaging each other about parts that we really liked.

  The first book seemed to fit more into the paranormal genre but along the way the series converted into outright fantasy. Such fun! The Raven boys (Gansey, Ronan, Adam and Noah) are a foursome who attend a private school situated near the small town of Henrietta, Virginia. They end up forming a friendship with Blue, a local girl who’s the only non psychic in a family and house full of psychics. Henrietta lies on Ley lines which give the town and surroundings volatile magical energy and a mythology about a buried medieval Welsh king and members of his court who had possibly travelled to Henrietta through the Ley lines, or ghost road as Blue’s family call it. One of the boys, Gansey, is obsessed with searching for the buried king who is supposedly only asleep and the others get caught up in the search since it is believed that the king will grant a wish to whoever wakens him. In their search for the king and his court the five of them become a court of sorts of their own; with Gansey being the leader, Ronan the dreamer and poet and Adam the wizard. As such they form a little knot in the middle of everyone else, a part of the whole and yet separate.

  Stiefvater very beautifully juxtaposes modern kids with their cell phones, modern vocabulary and their obsession with cars, with the search for a medieval king, forests that speak Latin, boys that can bring objects out of their dreams and zany psychics. Her characters have quirks which makes them likeably weird. Stiefvater offsets the very dark portions in the books with the main characters’ staunch loyalty to each other and the affection of people around them. Without that we felt the books might have been too dire a read for us. We also learnt a lot about different types of cars which are mentioned repeatedly in the books, almost as if they were characters themselves (like Gansy’s orange Camaro).

  We also really liked Stiefvater’s use of Latin through the books which made it different and interesting. Strangely this did not distract from the story, despite us having to look up the meanings, since  not all of them were obvious. The style of writing makes the books more than just the story, which for us, as always, provided the likeability factor. A series one can truly be absorbed in.

 

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An oxymoron

E230A7D8-70A4-473B-BC26-41E586D079C6 There was a time when human kindness and empathy were taken for granted. The kindness of strangers and neighbours was not unusual enough to elicit surprise and suspicion. So in a normal, safe world, people liked to read dystopian literature or books that plumb the dark depths of human nature. But when dystopia is around the corner, readers veer towards what is now recognised as the new trend in publishing – Up Lit. Fiction which is uplifting.

In the last few years Up Lit books have become increasingly popular. Books like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, A Man called Ove, The Storied life of A J Fikry, The Keeper of Lost Things, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep have flown off the bookshelves, been read and re read. It all culminated last year with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, winning the Costa Award for a debut novel and the British book awards.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a story about a withdrawn woman, with a scarred face, afflicted with OCDs and a troubled past. Her lack of understanding of the rules of social interactions is her most significant characteristic. Her life revolves completely around her work and the vodka she permits herself over the weekends. The book initially is about so much loneliness that it is almost scary to the reader. But as the story progresses, through simple acts of kindness Eleanor Oliphant, who was brought up in the care system, is given a perspective into other people and their lives. Since it is written in the first person, the emotions of Eleanor and the quandaries faced by her become almost palpable. Ultimately, by the end of the book the reader is left with a sense of hope and of well being. Up Lit indeed.

What we find amazing is that books like Eleanor Oliphant are about the simple ordinary things in life and everyday people and how they can make all the difference. But strangely enough readers are veering towards Up Lit in order to escape from reality. It certainly seems to be a contradiction in terms. The new norm is that the real has now become the unreal. What this says about the world around us, well…

 

A Sleeping Beauty, kind of…

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Deep within the forest near the town of Fairfold there is a glass casket with a beautiful horned boy sleeping in it. Hazel and her brother Ben along with their friends and generations of Fairfolders before them  have been fascinated by him and dreamt of breaking him out. This boy is very much a part of the town’s life and also brings in tourists who come to Fairfold not only to see him but also because the town is known to have a connection with the Fae. Holly Black‘s ‘The Darkest Part of the Forest’ is a dark and layered fantasy in  which the modern world of today with its technology overlaps with the tricksy and beguiling world of faeries.

The people of Fairfold are on the one hand living and working regular lives, using cell phones, the internet and watching Star Trek but they also remember to carry iron or rowan wood in their pockets and wear their socks inside out.  The court of the Alderking overlaps the woods near the town and a pact keeps the residents of the town of Fairfold safe-ish. Not so the tourists, who are considered fair game.

As stories go, The Darkest Part of the Forest is dark and unsettling. Pact or no pact, the Fae are uncomfortable neighbours. Either they take the form of monsters or they are out to trick the unwary for their own fun. But this is also a book which is all about changing the narrative of fairy stories that one is brought up with and for us that was the best part about it.

(Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t read it.)

In the story it is the girl, Hazel, who takes on the mantle of saviour of everyone. Like a knight she feels compelled to fight the monsters and protect those around her. She is the one who frees the sleeping prince. But neither she nor the prince choose each other in the romantic sense. Instead the prince chooses the brother who has been in love with him right from the beginning. The story tells us that the knight does not have to be a man; the boy who you have been friends with all your life can be a prince; and  despite all the human fascination with faeries and their world, it can go both ways – a faery child can choose to live a human life.

It took us some time to get into the book and accept the alternate narrative but once we did we found ourselves gripped by the story and all its subtle and diverse messages.We would say it is worth reading the book just to appreciate the last paragraph. People always talk about the first sentence or the opening paragraph of books, but this book is our pick for having the best last paragraph and in fact the best last sentence.

All shadow and no substance

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 There are many YA books that have incredible depth, well fleshed out characters and meaningful story lines. The only reason they are probably YA is because their protagonists are on the younger side (except the ones that are a few hundred years old but look young). Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone in the Grisha trilogy however does not fall into that category.

 Fantasy you can sink your teeth into is always better than fantasy that is just a story. Bardugo’s book is the latter and it is not even a story told well. The point of view keeps jumping from one person to another and first person to third person, without any rhyme or reason. The world building is shaky. There are superficial aspects of Russian culture but nothing consistent. And probably very irritating to people who know or understand anything about it.

 The book feels like a patch work of ideas that have worked in other books and put them together. You have the orphan who finds a best friend who then turns out to be more than a friend; the sudden discovery of considerable powers; the jealous senior during training; the cranky mentor who has the protagonist’s best interest at heart; the villain in plain sight; and the Hunger Games like moral dilemma (in this case the killing of poor animals). Apparently the only reason the series continues is so that more animals can be killed in each book to endow the protagonist with further powers. We are not going to bother with it.

Infinitely fed-up

It’s Infinity Wars season in the movie theatres, which is all very exciting, but it is also the season for Election Wars here in Karnataka State. As a result we have all kinds of politicians popping up claiming super powers that will transform the State to a heavenly abode and Bangalore city into Singapore, London, Dubai, Shanghai or whatever other city happens to be the flavour of the week. It little matters that Bangaloreans just want Bangalore, albeit a better version of it.

The respective parties’ posters dominating the street have gangs of their politicians in poses and pouts that put the Avengers to shame. And the much sought after infinity stones are already in their hands going by all the rings that they wear. Eat your heart out Thanos.

(The Infinity Stones, as per Marvel Cinematic Universe, were six singularities that existed before the creation of the universe and transformed into gems when the Big Bang happened. They can be used to destroy people, planets and entire systems.)

The Mind Stone – It a known fact that a politician is capable of changing his/her mind and jumping from party to party as and when felt necessary. It also helps them to mess with the public’s mind into voting for them.

The Space Stone – Since politicians are able to be all over the state while campaigning, this stone helps them bend space in order to transport themselves to rallies (with a little help from helicopters paid for by public money).

The Reality Stone – It enables the politicians to manipulate reality in order for it to seem as if they have accomplished everything promised in their manifestos. And once again mess with the public’s perception.

The Time Stone – Works in multiples of five (the term of an elected official) and condenses the entire five years into the two months running up to the elections when the politicians suddenly reappear and appear to be working.

The Power Stone – The most important of them all as far as the politicians go. It helps them gather all power unto themselves to destroy the entire state/country while at the same time lining their pockets.

The last one is the Soul Stone – The only one that makes no sense to politicians seeing as they are seriously deficient in this regard.

Paper Trees

The sky was hazy with the noonday heat, the sun at its scorchingest while the road in front was throwing up surreal mirages laden with water and palm trees. The lone kite in the sky was wheeling around looking for something to eat. As were the parched and hungry travellers. The AC in the car had no effect at all and the glare outside the window was relentlessly unending with no relief for the eyes.

  Sounds like a desert road doesn’t it? Except someway away from the road were the crop fields of the lush Cauvery delta. But the Bangalore-Chennai highway in the summer is a road out of hell, without a single tree to be seen anywhere by its side.

  In a place like India, where the summers are long, the word ‘hot’ is an understatement and the sun rains down fire, the mere quality of the road is insufficient to make a journey comfortable. You need trees! Trees to line the road and provide the cool green relief, not just for the eyes but to simply cut the heat hitting and bouncing off the concrete and tarmac. O for the simple joys of veering off the road during a long journey and taking a break. Of being able do the traditional Indian thing of enjoying a coffee from a flask (yes, even in the heat) and some crispy snacks. Of parking under the cool shade of a peepal or tamarind tree and eating the popular summer travel lunch of a heap of curd rice and a piece of raw mango pickle. Instead we find that even the restaurants along the way that double up as rest areas are proud to be tree free. They see no need to provide their patrons with trees to park their vehicles under or a tree lined path to reach the restaurant from the parking lot. Just a whole bunch of ineffective ACs, running on maximum, which everyone is supposed to be satisfied with.

  Someone told us that international standards do not permit planting of trees along the highway. But that is frankly ridiculous because the trees don’t have to be planted bang on the road itself. Besides, international standards are decided by people sitting in northern countries where the occasional appearance of the sun is watery at best. We want Sher Shah Suri back. He apparently had more sense and foresight in the 16th Century to not only construct the Grand Trunk Road across northern India but also to line the road with trees for the comfort of travellers.

Leaving aside supposed international standards, the Indian government has, at least on paper, decided to give us trees by mandating that 1% of the total highway cost should be set aside for planting trees in a planned manner along the roads. So now instead of beautiful trees lining the highway, the money is most likely, beautifully lining someone’s pocket or mattress. And that is the only thing that trees are considered good for these days – to provide the paper for printing money.

The winter traveller

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 It’s rare that a second book in a trilogy not only manages to stand on its own but is in fact, far better than the first book. The Girl in the Tower  (Winternight Trilogy) by Katherine Arden came as a pleasant surprise. We had read and reviewed the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, last year. Though interesting because it was so different, we had not found it riveting. But the second book was gripping and fascinating in equal measures and we found we couldn’t to put it down and became resentful when forced to.

The setting of  the tale in Russia and much of it in Moscow, during a period we don’t know much about, makes the book an intriguing read. In medieval times Rus was a vassal state of the Khans in Sarai and the story is set some years after the death of Genghis Khan. Culturally Rus was more influenced by the east rather than the west, which possibly explains the system of enclosing noble women in terems and not allowing them out in public. There was also considerable conflict between the old traditions and Christianity. Arden has added fascinating little details such as the different looks that people wear in different seasons; in winter they were wan and thin as opposed to the fuller cheeks of summer. And the descriptions of the bathing houses where people would sweat in hot steam and then jump into freezing cold water. As a result of these details, the book reads like a mix of fantasy and history.

  In the story, Vasya, who is now grown up, decides that traveling holds more appeal than joining a convent or getting married. Disguised as a boy and along with her faithful nightingale/horse Solovey, she sets out to discover the world. But while rescuing girls kidnapped by bandits she gets caught up with court of the Grand Prince of Moscow whose adviser is her brother Sasha and she travels to Moscow with them. She is also reunited with her sister in Moscow and ends up battling supernatural forces once again. To some extent her relationship to Morozko the winter king is shaping up and we particularly liked the fact that she insists on standing her ground even with him and is herself unhappy about not knowing where precisely he figures in her life. But we have a feeling there is more to come.

  Compared to the earlier book, this story is much more gripping mainly because Vasya can be more free and has Solovey to back her up. We are still wondering what the connection is in old Russian folklore between horses and birds. The glossary does not clarify this point but is otherwise an integral part of the book, we read it with as much relish as we did the story. Arden’s writing has matured since the last book with the story flowing a lot better in this one. And we definitely cheered when we found out that the third book is out in August this year. Not much of a wait.