We need a hero

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All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison is a pastoral tale and starts off beautifully with details of the countryside, hedgerows, wheat fields and hay ricks. Even the title of the book is bucolic. Her descriptions of wildflowers just makes one want to be there. We believe that this is typical of Harrison’s style, although we haven’t read any of her earlier works, all embedded in rural settings brought to life by her writing.

  In All Among the Barley, the protagonist, Edith, is a 14 year old in the early 1930s and living on her parents’ farm. She is more bookish than a person living in such a setting is expected to be. She tends to get into trouble because of  her fondness for books and reading, particularly since she refuses to close a book until she has reached a sentence of seven words exactly. By the time the book starts Edith has left school and claims to have left behind her childhood infatuations and found greater loves like Percy Bysshe Shelley and John from Swallows and Amazons.

  With a protagonist who starts off interesting and relatable, elements of countryside witch craft, rural unrest, pre WWII antisemitism, this could have been an engrossing book but for the fact that it has no hero. There are only a number of potential heroes who build up your expectations but fall flat in the end. All you are left with is the protagonist’s slow decline into confusion and the fall of her heroes.

  Perhaps the fault lies with fact that we have read a number of YA books recently and have come to expect a character who saves the day. We understand that real life does not necessarily provide you with a suitable beginning and ending but then a book is not really real life. For a gripping story to be told within the number of pages provided, it must, we now realise, have that one character who attracts both the sympathy and the admiration of the reader. Even if the book is a tragedy, there has to be a choice of self sacrifice that must be made, like Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). Without giving too much away we feel that Harrison has just left her readers wondering what is happening and why.

  To be read only for the descriptions in the first third of the book. Randomly meandering otherwise.

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From a younger perspective

It’s always great to talk to someone who enjoys the same books as you and when it’s your favourite author that they like – it’s that much more fun.  We have never had a third party interaction on our blog posts before, so when, because of an unexpected school holiday, we found ourselves chatting about Terry Pratchett with a fourteen year old, over ice cream on a Monday, it was both envy raising as well as fascinating.

Why envy? You may well ask. When we start reading TPs books, it was an anxious wait every year for the release date of the new book but the younger generation have had the pleasure of binge reading all the books without need for pause or wait.

But it is fascinating and also great to known that the younger generation has the capability to appreciate TP. Which is why we we ended up grilling the kid and bought her a second ice cream so that we could continue. So here is a conversation all about Terry Pratchett.

Us: Which was the first Terry Pratchett you read and how old were you?
Kid: I was 12 when I read the first two Tiffany books – Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky.

Us: Which would you say is your favourite Discworld book?

Kid: I don’t know… wait… Hogfather and Monstrous Regiment, I think. Hogfather because of the idea that belief makes the Hogfather real. Small Gods has a similar theme but Hogfather has Susan in it. In Monstrous Regiment, it’s the dystopian feel and female empowerment that I liked.

Us: Of all of the amazing characters TP has introduced us to who is your favourite?
Kid: Susan with the hair (Susan has light blonde hair with one streak of black) and Tiffany with her rather violent cheese that wears a kilt and goes mnam mnam. What I like about both of them is that they are very sensible and don’t put up with any nonsense from anyone.

Us: If you could live anywhere on the Discworld, where would you choose to live?
Kid: I would want to live in Lancre, because that’s where Nanny Ogg is. (Oh, the appeal of witches!)

Us: And if you were living on Discworld, what do you think you would like to do?
Kid: I would love to be a witch but I am not practical enough so maybe I would join the Watch.

Us: What is your go to series? Since you are wearing a Marvel T-shirt?
Kid: Definitely TP and Discworld! I wish there was any Discworld merchandise available. Because then that is what I would be wearing. Also if I had 15 mins I would pick reading a Terry Pratchett book over watching Marvel movies any day.

Us: what draws you to TPs books?
Kid: It’s an entirely new world that is relatable but yet detached from ours. It’s not dependent on any thing that happens here but has everything that we don’t have like dragons, imps, goblins, vampires, witches, wizards and elves. What appears good is not necessarily good and what is bad is not necessarily evil. Because everyone is shady. Except for Carrot (In the Nightwatch series) who is so good that he seems off.

Us: What is your favourite food on Discworld?
Kid: Nanny Oggs suspect recipes.

Us: So which series do you prefer, Harry Potter or Discworld?
Kid: Discworld, because it’s funnier and more relatable. TP makes you think more and you can’t ignore the darker shades. Although Harry Potter is great too.

Us:  Do you feel reading TP changed your reading habits in any way?
Kid: I discovered at it at the right age. It supported the direction I was already going in.

So that’s it, another one is quite obviously bitten by the bug. And probably the bug will last life long.

In the beginning…

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  In the beginning there was a sword….. and so the stories go. Whosoever pulled the sword out of either a stone or out of a lake got to become king. The sword was central to the Arthurian legend and ensured that Arthur was recognised as King by the people of Britain. Most stories have him pulling out Excalibur from a stone where it was embedded but there is the alternate legend that the Lady of the Lake showed him where to pull the sword out from a lake. And so the stories get built up – swords, wizards, round tables, knights and kingdoms accompanied by a whole lot of fanfare (at least in the movies).

  The tales have been written, with variations, over and over again and inspired generations of fantasy and epic writers and movies.  Starting from Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory to Tennyson’s epic poems, the much beloved Once and Future King by T.H. White to the Merlin trilogy by Mary Stewart and the Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. The myth of the sword identifying the ruler is central in the readers’ minds

  No one, however, expects such storybook events to take place outside the pages of a book or the cinema screen. And certainly not with the words “Daddy, I found a sword”. Which is what eight year old Saga Vanecek said when she  pulled out a 1500 year old sword from Viodstern lake in Sweden earlier this year.

  It’s not surprising that people immediately started drawing parallels and talking about Saga as the rightful queen. Even her name in English means a heroic tale, a perfect name for a story come to life. Certainly, going by the tales, it is only right that the person who pulls out the sword gets to be king or queen. But Saga is reportedly more interested in either being a vet or an actress when she grows up. She did, however, say she wouldn’t mind being queen for one day.  No one seems to be offering her that as yet. Whether she gets to be queen or not, she seems to have found magic along with the sword. According to her the lake feels magical now. What else does any eight year old need to fire up the imagination? A sword and magic should certainly do the trick.

We are just waiting to see whether in time a legend grows around the story of the girl who pulled a sword from a lake.

Chucking it all up

  There is a standard formula that works – Leave (or be forced to leave) a well paying job in a city and move to a picturesque yet ramshackle house in the country, an overgrown garden, minimal connectivity and locals who can’t understand you and you can’t understand them. Some of them may even be downright unwelcoming.

  Why is it that just getting in a plumber to stop a tap from leaking is such a headache but when somebody writes about their travails about working on making an entire house liveable, it makes for good escapist reading? What makes us classify our own plumbing/electrical concerns as a nuisance whereas the plumbing nightmares of others become  fantasy?

  And while getting the house done if there is also a garden/olive grove/ lavender fields/ vineyard that needs backbreaking work, all the better. There is some inherent desire in human beings to run away and start afresh and do something closer to nature and something that does not turn you into a 9:00am to 12:00am, constantly connected to the online world, zombie. There is obviously an appeal to the real world which cannot be replaced by the internet. Plus such books always have detailed descriptions of the food consumed between setting the house to rights, working on the grounds or trying to be accepted by the locals. Food and drink are, of course, one of the biggest attractions to the reader. Whether commonplace or exotic, it’s always nice to know what is being consumed.

  Books along these lines are written every day and yet there is always a market for more. Each one that is published, continues to sell. A Year In Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun, Extra Virgin, Up with the Larks are all memoirs about getting away. Since the formula works so well there are also series of fiction written along similar lines.

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We recently read Jenny Colgan’s The Little Beach Street Bakery, set in a fishing community on a (sometimes) island off the coast of Cornwall. The protagonist, an outsider renting a falling apart building manages to turn her life around by indulging in her passion of baking bread and making a space for herself. She finds that the community also houses a resident bee keeper and an eccentric millionaire who are also trying to live a ‘different’ life. The book should have been stressful with a broke Polly dealing with the disintegration of her business and long term relationship in a cold flat overlooking a haunted wharf. Instead we found it a relaxing and easy read. The bread always came out well, no matter the conditions, a puffin becomes a pet and the locals eventually become friends.

  Being close to nature, even the ferocity of it, calls to some genetic memory in humans. Perhaps because we were farming, bee keeping, baking, hunting and fishing long before we were Whatsapping, Instagraming, Snapchating,  Tumblering and blogging.

The Muggle Harry

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The fourth book in the Cormoran Strike series, Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling), is a lengthy, involved, murder mystery featuring the London Olympics and the corridors of political power. It equally ridicules the conservative upper classes with their idiotic nicknames (Izzy, Fizzy, Torks and Tinky) and country estates as well as the extreme left wingers finding their identity in rebelling against anything and everything.

  The book has blackmail, murder and quite a bit of character development of the detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant turned business partner Robin. In investigating a murder that may or may not have taken place many years ago, and the blackmail of a government minister, Strike and Robin find themselves  dealing with politicians, their families and their detractors. The two of them, despite the sometimes unsavoury nature of the work and despite difficulties in their personal lives, are people who really love what they do and have a clear sense of right and wrong which makes them instantly appealing to the reader.

  While we feel that the author has from the outset dealt with Robin Ellacott with a lot of affection in the series, it is only in this book that we felt the same affection extended to Cormoran Strike. This changes the tone of the book, making it as much about the protagonists as it is about the mystery. Cormoran Strike, the way he is written in this book is very much a grown up Harry Potter, living in the normal world. Scarred, with a tragic back story, dealing with the aftermaths of a war and cursed with the kind of fame that he doesn’t want, he is a person who has sympathy for people and a desire to do good. Robin Ellacott, with her intelligence, capability and earnestness has, from the first book in the series reminded us of Hermione Granger.

  Rowling is very good at writing about friendships and supportive working relationships between her characters. We wonder whether there is an element over here of atoning for the lack of anything else between Harry and Hermione, which Rowling had once rued, after the Potter series had concluded.

  With plenty of food (not necessarily appetising), drink and detailed descriptions of London during the Olympics, Lethal White is a sprawling, chunky book that one can sink one’s teeth into and be thoroughly entertained. It helps that it was less gruesome than the previous two books in the series. Which bodes well for re readings.

Lost in cultural translation?

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We read a lot of fantasy, set in strange/alternate universes, populated often by non human characters with their own cultural codes. But then that is where world building comes in as fantasy authors help the reader understand the alternate settings. On the other hand realistic writing always has the problem of being written in one particular cultural context and how much of that is relate-able for readers around the world depends on the author. Too much explanation will become boring and not enough can sometimes leave people mystified about certain things in a book which ends up distracting the readers from the main story.

This is what happened to us to some extent with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The book starts off with a horrific event where the protagonist Starr Carter witnesses her friend being unfairly shot by a cop. From that point onward in the story the killing becomes a media circus and a statement on the race relations in the US today.

Starr has an extended supportive family but her experiences affect her relationship with her friends and boyfriend. Things are made more difficult by the fact that she is one of the few black kids at her private school. For a book that has been touted as this generation’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we didn’t find it emotionally gripping in the same way. And this is despite the fact that the unfairness and prejudices depicted in the story should have been truly gut wrenching. Somewhere the narrative loses its intensity and events that should have been more visceral have been dealt with superficially. We understand that this is a YA book but that is no excuse for it not to be more detailed.

The premise of the story itself should have ensured that the book could not be put aside lightly at the end. Unfortunately we managed to finish it only because we kept expecting it to get better – largely due to the rave reviews that it had received.

Starr’s pain and the dual life she leads at home and at school are very identifiable. But when a book is written in the first person the trauma has to come out in the words of the protagonist. Which just does not happen. On the other hand because it is written in the first person the reader loses out a lot by way of deliberations of the grand jury and also enough about what the emotions of the adults in the book are. Using merely Starr’s voice limits the perspective of the story since her thoughts themselves are not deep enough. We would also have preferred the legal angle to be a lot more substantial and not so wishy-washy.

As a result we have decided realistic YA fiction is not for us. We need more meat and substance and bite to our stories. Perhaps the movie will be better.

A Poet’s Way

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  Every once in a while we get reader’s block and find ourselves re reading an old favourite rather than delving through a new book. Travelogues and books about journeys are always an easy read in the circumstances. Unlike a novel which, once you are engrossed, is difficult to put down and then you just end up being cranky for being interrupted, travel books can be read in bits and pieces, even going backwards and forwards. There is a strange sort of delight in sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and reading about the tribulations of someone on the road. We have, recently, once again picked up Simon Armitage‘s Walking Home. After seeing him reading one of his poems at the Jaipur Literature Festival some years back, we decided he was just our kind of poet. Some poets write poetry and do it well but there are very few who can read their own poetry out aloud with such flare and panache so as to enthral even the non poetry readers. And we, who actually enjoy poetry, completely fell for it. There is enough available on YouTube and is well worth a watch.

  As a result, as soon as it was available here, we picked up Armitage’s  Walking Home – an account of his walk on the Pennine Way, towards his home village of Marsden. It is normally the starting point for most people who trek the route from south to north but Armitage felt it might be more motivating to head home rather than moving away. He trekked the entire way without taking any money with him and because of a notice on his website, volunteers organised poetry readings in return for meals and a bed each night. So basically, instead of singing for his supper, he recited his own poetry for his supper. Sort of, as he calls it, a modern day troubadour.

  Like other travel writers, Armitage describes the scenery around him and the difficulties of navigating the Pennine Way, which is one of the most challenging walks, and the people who he met along the way and those who occasionally accompanied him for short stretches.

  We did feel that considering it is a book by a poet, there could have been a few more poems in it but it would seem that lists were more important to him as a walker.  There are lists of places to reach each day, lists of things carried, lists of things he was dreading and not dreading and a list of the types of people met on the road (on the basis of “prejudicial assumptions”). Armitage provides detailed descriptions of walking in mud and the English weather. Which all sounds like fun when read while sitting at home.

  We are planning to read his next book – Walking Away at some point, however, not having read it before we have to wait for our readers’ block to pass.