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.

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Conspiracy Theories

  Apparently there is something called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is a whole lot of non bio degradable plastic that has converged, due to ocean currents, somewhere in the Pacific. And apparently it’s twice the size of France. Who is believing it?

Apparently plastic micro particles can be found even in the Antarctic and are being eaten by fish who are in turn being eaten by people, who are now more susceptible to cancer, motor neurone diseases and a whole host of neurological problems including Alzheimer’s. Who is believing this?

Apparently the petrochemical industry intensely lobbies against banning plastics or developing alternatives to it. As they also very strongly lobby against solar power which despite being around for sometime now, hasn’t see any reduction in the set up cost which would have encouraged people to switch. Just another conspiracy theory.

Apparently the chemical industry also lobbies and pooh-poohs the idea of organic farming and ensures the wide spread use of chemical pesticides which result in most people now being allergic to their staple foods like wheat. And rice allergies are also on the rise. The dairy cattle consume feed which has been sprayed with chemicals which leads to increase in lactose intolerance. Just another conspiracy theory.

Apparently global warming is a conspiracy theory cooked up by mad and under qualified scientists who want to destabilise the fossil fuel industry and the plastic manufacturers.

  But hey, the world is fine. Its rivers and oceans are not polluted, its soil is not contaminated and forests have not been ripped up. Those who say so are people who are luddites and want to come in the way of progress and development. Have you noticed how fanatical they can be? But the main thing is that no one believes them. Humans in order to be humans need to come out of the caves. Sustainability is for idiots, the more plastics and the more fossil fuels, the better.

The blue of the spring sky

221AA37F-A534-4770-932B-B0967575BFF6  The title of this post is a line in the book “Strange the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor which she uses to describe one of the characters. But one could also use it to describe the book itself where blue is the colour constantly on the minds of all the characters and sets the tone of the story. If the style of writing could be described in colours, Taylor’s is definitely the blue of a spring sky, fresh and clear but leaving the reader with a constant sense that storm clouds are just around the corner.

Beyond that, we really don’t know what to say because Strange the Dreamer left us, not speechless which is too mild a term, but instead we would say – gobsmacked. Taylor’s writing grabs hold of your mind and literally messes with it. Long after the book was over we couldn’t stop thinking about it. Almost as if it was stalking us. Normally readers feel they can’t let go of a good book but in this case the book refuses to let go of the reader.

Strange the Dreamer is one of those rare books where the writing style and storytelling are almost two different entities running in parallel. There is really not much we can say about the story without giving too much away. Lazlo Strange goes from being an orphan dreaming about the mythical city of Weep, to junior librarian obsessed with Weep and learning everything he can about it and then finds himself traveling to Weep in the capacity of storyteller and secretary to the Godslayer. The mysteries abound. What god did the Godslayer slay? What happened to the original name of Weep to make it disappear from everyone’s minds? And why was the city cut off from the rest of the world for two hundred years?

This is a fantasy novel but it is the writing which creates real magic. Taylor’s style is lyrical and poetic and we found the book slow going because we absolutely had to keep going back and re reading paragraphs and sentences – “Swans swam past like elegant ships, and the village was all pastel with patches of blue shadow. The sky was the colour of the blush on peaches, and insect language whirred in the sweet meadow grass.”

If we were recommending one book for the year, and yes we know we are only a quarter of the way through, if you haven’t read it already, it absolutely has to be this one. Even if you are not a fantasy reader. Or, perhaps, since it is a duology, you could wait until the second book, The Muse of Nightmares, which is expected to be out in October this year.

A rock star brain

Professor Steven Hawking passed away on the 14th of March and since then there has been a tremendous amount written and said about him. That in itself is remarkable because how many physicists at Cambridge or any college for that matter have the fan following that he did? It’s not for nothing that they asked him to appear on the Simpsons. And it is rare these days for someone to gain that kind of popularity because of their intellect.

His appeal went way beyond scientists or science students or even those who are just vaguely interested in science. We read his book, A Brief History of Time, a long time ago. Though written for persons without a science background, it was still tough going. But the fact that we even attempted it speaks for his ability to get non science people excited  about physics.

Leaving aside his scientific theories and discoveries, he was a person with a stupendous brain but was willing to remain within the overlap between science and popular culture. Unlike a lot of scientists he did not closet himself in an ivory tower. This meant that people were constantly quoting him or referring to something he had said. The cheat code to winning an argument was to quote him and then the other person would really have nothing to counter you with.

Perhaps for Stephen Hawking, being imprisoned within his body is what sent his mind soaring out into the furthest reaches of the Universe, even to the very beginning of it. Maybe that was his way of finding freedom and mobility. We certainly hope so. But the best part was that he took a lot of people along on that journey. His grit and determination in the face of such adverse circumstances have inspired many over the years. The most unexpected people have been commenting on social media about his passing away. It’s also possible that a lot of recognition came his way from people who would not have picked up his books but then, they watch the Big Bang Theory.

Whatever the reason and over so many years, he received the kind of adulation usually reserved for rock stars or sports personalities but tinged with the sort of respect that they don’t normally encounter.

What a con!

22D359C7-4D9C-4F84-86FA-37C3960D8F2D.jpeg The Rooster Bar by John Grisham is about a trio of law student crooks who, disgruntled with their student debt, decide to con a whole bunch of people and make some money. In the process, it is the reader who gets right royally conned. Why did we ever read this book? Well, because it is John Grisham, who has in the past managed to engage his readers with packed, interesting, legal thrillers. And we have enjoyed his earlier books. We tend to forget how bad the last few books were and keeping thinking about the earlier ones and hoping that each new one will recapture the magic. Wrong thing to do. The disappointment just keeps happening.

 The Rooster Bar takes the cake with the list of agonising, sheer waste of time books and all we want to do is to fling it at Mr. Grisham for having lured us to read it. It has nothing appealing about it. Narrated more in the style of a documentary of a heist, the story drags and even half way through the book one keeps waiting for it to get going. But it never happens. We couldn’t identify or sympathise with any of the characters because along with being financially bankrupt they are also morally bankrupt. In which universe is it ok to con others just because you have been conned? It’s one thing for a protagonist to use extra legal methods to right a wrong but surely not to perpetuate a wrong? Besides, stories where the crooks are the protagonists only work if George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon are acting the parts, with Julia Roberts thrown in for good measure.

 This sort of trading on his goodwill is not going to stand Mr. Grisham in good stead for much longer. At least with us. In most of his books, towards the end, the main character manages to make a huge amount of money, throws up his/her career and then retires to an island in the sun to enjoy life. We think it may be time that Mr. Grisham, having made enough money out of us, does the same.

Let’s Fantasise

As is common with big awards functions looming over the horizon, bets were being placed last week as to which movie would win the best picture at the Oscars. We now know that the award has gone to The Shape of Water, a small quiet fantasy film. Apparently the bookies placed its chances second to Three Billboards, purely for the reason that it is a fantasy film and fantasies rarely win big awards.

The Shape of Water is only the second fantasy movie to have won a best picture Oscar, after Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (the third Lord of the Rings movie) swept the 11 categories it was nominated for in 2004. But we feel that was more a case of the Academy waiting for the three movies to get over and then giving all the awards in one go. Besides Lord of the Rings is not just a fantasy story but also a classic.

The Shape of Water however is a real win for the fantasy genre and we don’t entirely agree with people who are saying it’s a win for ‘inclusion’. It may be that too. But we see it largely as part of a trend which started with TV; the mainstreaming of fantasy. A movie about a humanoid sea creature being experimented on in a government facility and developing a bond with a mute cleaner does not seem the stuff of usual award candidates. The movie is visually beautiful and has a softness which belies the dark viciousness underneath. But the subject is undeniably fantasy and cannot be considered anything else. Every such win is a win for a much neglected genre. Why it has been neglected, is incomprehensible. We agree with Dr. Suess when he says “Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.

Let’s then fantasise that next there is going to be a Booker win for a fantasy novel. Surely we are getting there.

Tasting the word

88E22C08-7FDD-486D-8972-2813FCF30F6B  Surprisingly,  a bit of news that escaped our notice about a month back was about Peter Mayle, the author of A Year in Provence and numerous other books, having passed away on the 18th of January. The Indian news media, in its mysterious wisdom, felt it was not noteworthy and it was hardly reported upon. This despite his first book having sold something like six million copies worldwide, and which was extremely popular even here. The film ‘A Good Year‘, based on another one of his books, continues to be shown repeatedly on movie channels. We were particularly saddened by the news being ignored as A Year in Provence, though a little book, always has a big impact on whoever reads it and the author’s passing deserved more attention.

Peter Mayle moved to Ménerbes in Provence after selling up in England and wrote of his experiences of finding a house, refurbishing it, settling into the community and discovering the local food and wine. When published in 1989 (but we only discovered it in the mid 90s), A Year in Provence sold a dream to people around the globe, either overwhelmed by the rat race or running the treadmill of daily, mundane existence. The book, with its monthly chapters covering the changing seasons, descriptions of Provençal countryside, lavender fields and small market towns is the perfect vicarious escape for a reader. The descriptions of hearty, rustic Provencal food are written with such savour that the reader can almost taste it. And it doesn’t  matter if one is a vegetarian or meat eater. We have known vegetarians, otherwise experts at being grossed out at even the thought of meat, happily consuming Peter Mayle’s books and relishing them.

Over the years we have found ourselves recommending A Year in Provence to people as a good distraction from anything and everything. But it is a very difficult book to lend as it rarely makes its way back to the owner. We learnt this after losing a few copies and being forced to buy more for ourselves; because it is also a book that one keeps returning to. It was wonderful that Mr. Mayle was able to share this slice of his life with his readers. And perhaps he also inspired many to try a similar lifestyle for themselves, though not always as successfully. Ultimately it is the attitude that matters when moving to a new country or even a new community and in his humour and voyage of discovery, he seemed to have gotten that right. He is also credited with having inspired the trend of food and travel reality shows on TV which are so avidly watched but which are a pale comparison to the sensory experience of Peter Mayle’s words jumping right off the page.