Galactic scale crazy

Some books are just meant to be read in the summer – light hearted, fun and a ten on the scale of one to ten for utter madness. Sweep of the Heart by Ilona Andrews is just such a book. The latest in the Innkeeper Chronicles series, it was initially serialised on the website of Ilona Andrews. We definitely wouldn’t have had the patience to read it in the serialised version but as a book it was immense fun. We have earlier reviewed other books in the series but this one took the craziness to another level.

Dina and Sean are inkeepers of Gertrude Hunt, a galactic Inn on earth where aliens of all species can come and stay without any hindrance, on the condition that they do not reveal themselves to earth’s populace. The powerful emperor of the Seven Star Dominion, a large galactic power, holds a contest to choose his spouse. The contestants have been narrowed down to the final twelve. His organisers ask Gertrude Hunt to host the finals as it would be a neutral space. Such a place is critical since the contestants are from various, some rivalling and some murderous planets. Dina and Sean find themselves organising a Hunger Games meets the Bachelor kind of event but on a galactic scale. The whole thing is televised for the Dominion people to vote on who they want their emperor to choose.

You see our point about how mad it is? Well, it gets even better. The contestants themselves are various genders and species, even a fish like creature in a tank which speaks through rays of light pulsating from it. How such a marriage would work ultimately is not something that the reader should break their heads about. Apparently everything is possible on a galactic level. Needless to say, the emperor is a wily politician and the entire spouse selection exercise is a controlled popularity gaining and deal making exercise whilst ensuring the citizens are invested in whoever is picked. The craziness of the contestants did make us wonder whether Ilona Andrews, the writing duo, were drinking something powerful when coming up with each chapter.

Dina and Sean and their staff are brilliant and manage with panache to control the factions whilst providing incredible food courtesy their amazing and former ‘Red Cleaver’ chef ( seven feet tall and having a hedgehog like appearance!). There are serious parts to the story, like a rescue mission, but who remembers those? There are also a number of reveals for those who are following the series, most importantly the back story of Caldenia, the first and permanent guest of Gertrude Hunt.

A most enjoyable novel if one doesn’t insist on connecting the dots too much. A literary tour de force it is not and unashamedly so. But it is certainly one of the zaniest and most entertaining reads that we have come across in a while. Great for a light hearted Sunday afternoon in summer.


The price of magic

Cadence is an island divided between two clans fighting a bitter feud over generations. It remains largely isolated from the mainland by the spirits of earth, fire, air and water who are ever present and sometimes corporeal. As a result, the mainlanders avoid going any where near the island. The spirits are far from benign and often play tricks on the populace. They have to be propitiated and avoided as far as possible. And yet their presence gives the islanders certain gifts, whether of music, healing, growing crops, smithing or weaving garments with enchantments. Nothing is, of course, free from the price that magic demands. A River Enchanted by Rebecca Ross starts with the legend of the feud between the two clans on the Island of Cadence. The heirs of clan Tamerlaine and clan Breccan got married and then a betrayal resulted in the bloody end of both. Curses were laid on either side and the clans were thereafter constantly at loggerheads which ultimately benefitted no one.

In the present day the laird of clan Tamerlaine, in the east of the island, summons Jack, who is learning music on the mainland, to return as there is no longer a bard in the clan. Little girls have been disappearing and the bard has magic which can help find out what happened to them. Jack returns home to his mother who he feels had rejected him by sending him to the mainland and his old nemesis, Adaira, the heir of the clan. They have to put aside their differences and try to find out what happened to the missing girls.

A River Enchanted is really about an island enchanted. The way in which the inhabitants accept the interference or even the help of the spirits makes the magic a very real part of their lives. Though the story on its own is rather dark with most characters facing intense emotional issues, yet there are portions of such beauty and brightness in the way in which it is written that the dark seems quite overcome. The possibility of violence, whether from spirits or humans, is ever present, but it is the style of writing and turn of phrase by Ross which elevates the novel to a whole other level – ” She stumbled to her feet. The world spun for a moment – melting stars and a vermillion sunrise and the flap of a bird’s wings” or “The place was dark and quiet with dreams.” The whole novel is redolent with beautiful descriptions and such a pleasure to read. In all the despair, little things like how gossip quite literally travels on the wind or that plants will grow well if you have true belief that the spirits of the earth will take care of them make the reader smile. The relationship between Jack and the islanders as well as Jack and Adaira develop beautifully through the book.

There are books that are written so well that the reader wants to race through them but the real magic of this book is that it makes you want to stop and think over lines, phrases and paragraphs and just absorb the way in which they have been written. Ultimately we feel it’s the reader who ends up being enchanted. Since Elements of Cadence is a duology, we will be reviewing book 2 soon.

A Haiku in story form

We have always known that a lot can happen over a cup of coffee but Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Japanese author Toshikazu Kawaguchi takes this to a whole different level. It’s a beautiful little book and one that is so well translated that one of us didn’t even realise it was a translation!

Funicular Funicula is a tiny basement café, off a side street in Tokyo, run by the owner, his wife and cousin. It sounds like the perfect little café. It is comfortable irrespective of the weather, the owners know the regulars very well and have become friends with them. The atmosphere is old world with its rickety fan and no air conditioning but it provides all the varieties of coffee provided by modern day coffee shops.

The café has its regulars and also the occasional person who wanders in off the street. The unique thing about the café is one particular chair at one particular table which enables those sitting there with a cup of coffee to time travel. But there are rules – the time travel can only happen to a time when the person one wants to see was at the café, the time traveller cannot move from the chair they are sitting on and they must return before the coffee they are drinking gets cold.

The book is four little stories of the people who sit in the chair and their stories get tied in together with the other occupants of the café. The feeling of the novel is like a haiku poem – the references to nature, shortness of the book and the surprises at the end of each section of the story. It’s so lovely to read an entire description about the sounds that crickets make in different seasons and that the writing paper used by one of the customers was the colour of cherry blossoms.

Before the Coffee gets cold is a poignant little book which pulls at all the heart strings but the reader still wants to go back to it. Which would explain the sequels that the author has come out with.

The challenges of having a book club of two

So here we are on a Monday morning not having read the same books over the last couple of weeks and then sitting with dazed expressions over our coffee, not knowing what to review. There was lots to gossip about but very little bookish stuff. We exhausted our comparison of the Golden Globes red carpet and the Critic’s Choice red carpet, the resignation of Jacinda Ardern and a little bit of book talk about the speakers at the 2023 Jaipur Lit Fest, most of whom we had never heard of.

It just isn’t possible in a book club of two to ‘wing it’ by pretending to have read a book. The Wikipedia summary or spark notes are not enough. The other person will be able to immediately tell that you are prevaricating. Then there is often the problem of one person not turning up, in which case the discussion has to be cancelled altogether. Achieving a quorum is quite tough in the face of school exams, out station trips, holidays and basically life. Attendance is essential on a Monday morning for the club to function. Casual absenteeism is frowned upon resulting in the penalty of having to buy coffee next time. Not to mention guilt tripping for the lack of a blog post despite the ‘mostly’ in MostlyMondays. Then there is the issue that a synchronised ‘to be read’ list does not guarantee a synchronised ‘have read’ book list. We try to maintain some co ordination across genres but every once in a while the genres diverge and then discussion becomes impossible. Since we are not only a book club but also write a blog, there is the occasional issue of writer’s block which can be quite contagious. Also, since the members of the club have similar tastes, there tends to be too much consensus at times. Dissent can lead to drama, vigorous disagreements about the book of the week add spice to book club meetings. In in our club there is a complete lack of it.

So we end up doing the other stuff that book clubs do, discuss what to read next, also known as list building, drink coffee, eat a few snacks, grumble about the state of the city, the weather, global warming, food, some cribbing about authors who never finish series etc. Then we wonder whether it would make sense to add a few more people into the book club. But that idea is rejected as soon as it is voiced as being more trouble than it would be worth.

Angels and Dragons

We reviewed Aliette de Bodard‘s House of Shattered Wings some time back and then subsequently read The House of Binding Thorns and The House of Sundering Flames, books 2 and 3 in the trilogy known as the Dominion of the Fallen. The books continue the story of a Paris devastated by war with order existing pretty much only in the houses governed by the fallen angels. The houseless are left to manage by themselves. This includes the people brought over forcibly a few generations ago from Anam which is the ancient name for Vietnam. There is also the eastern dragon kingdom which has relocated to the Seine.

In Book 2 the dragon kingdom, plagued by its internecine rebellions, seeks to ally with House Hawthorn by marrying off a Prince of the kingdom to the leader of the house. Book 3 is the culmination of the series and the power struggles between the houses. It is a strong comment on the abuse of power whether colonial or between the houses. It is also an exploration of what it means to be a true leader. Morningstar, the first amongst the Fallen once again makes an appearance. And how! The Fallen don’t remember why they fell only that they no longer have grace. They don’t much remember their God either. All they have is Morningstar who is the first and the most powerful of them. They either look for his protection or rebel against him or seek to control him, In whichever way, he pervades their consciousness and also that of the reader.

The powers of the west which are basically the Fallen have in the past conquered the lands of the east, wiped out and enslaved local cultures resulting in the withdrawal of the spiritual and magical powers of those lands. The books speak of senseless destruction and disregard for all aspects of Anam’s culture which did not benefit the houses. But this does not stop them from using and abusing the powers of another land when they can get hold of it. Enter Dan Chuay, the tiger god/spirit/manifestation with the power to basically be a nuclear weapon. He has been captured and enslaved and is, when released wanting revenge on anyone and anything in his path.

The last novel in the trilogy is a murder mystery and political potboiler rolled into one. Throw in magic of different kinds, dragons and of course Morninstar and Dan Chuay, a host of insane fallen and the story just zips along but raises numerous questions along the way. It all boils down to the one question of where do you draw the line? In their desire to make their house more powerful the leaders are willing to destroy the city which is already in tatters and everything and everyone that is not their house. Ultimately the heroes of the book are the people who are standing behind the leaders and who are willing to show more compassion and be more inclusive. They are the ones who make the difference at the end of the day along with the common people who have been subjugated.

Moonlight and Stardust

We were keen to start the new year with a light hearted book, nothing too serious which would put us in a glum mood. The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna is a book that kept cropping up in various reviews all of last year and it was present in most fantasy top ten book lists at the year end. It seemed like a good read to carry us through the close of the old year and to start the new one.

Mika Moon, in her thirties, is the youngest witch in her secret society of witches that meets once in three months. The one abiding rule of the society, as strictly enforced by their leader and Mika’s erstwhile guardian, Primrose, is that the witches must maintain absolute secrecy about their powers and not congregate unnecessarily. Meetings of witches tend to lead to outbursts of magic and this draws attention. Even though set in modern times, the memory of witch trials, drownings and burnings linger. Mika tends to cause a bit of friction since she runs a popular YouTube channel pretending to be a witch whilst actually being one.

Out of the blue a job offer arrives one day for Mika from Nowhere House, to teach three little witches ranging from 7 to 10 years who require training to harness and control their powers. She decides to accept despite knowing that it would be frowned upon by the society. At Nowhere House Mika meets the denizens, the elderly Ian who had initially approached her, his husband Ken who is Japanese and likes to garden, the cook Lucie and the librarian Jamie. Then there are the three little girls gathered from around the world, each with their own character and magical powers. Mika who has never lived anywhere long enough to grow roots is suddenly in the midst of a family.

The book is ultimately about the importance of human connections and the story is presented with a lot of diversity but it seems too deliberate at times. The novel started off beautifully with Mika making magical teas with wonderful names, moving her greenhouse, koi pond, two cauldrons and one golden retriever in her tiny little car named ‘the broomstick’. She concocts potions in her attic room in Nowhere House by gathering starlight and moonlight and talks about how intuitive the process is. Her relationship with the girls is wonderful in the way they each react to her. Despite being an only child, brought up in isolation Mika has the gumption to deal with each ones idiosyncrasies. The girls themselves are incredibly cute with names like Rosetta, Terracotta and Altamira. Their very different reactions to Mika’s arrival are also dealt with immense affection by the adults around them.

However at the end we felt the novel was a strong spell that fizzled out. It started wonderfully with all the ingredients of a magical realism novel with a lot of heart and funny moments and a pinch of romance but the second half became much more romance and the magic, the magical elements and even the girls were totally overshadowed. We don’t want to say too much about the ending but only that it seemed a little forced. All in all a light hearted book to read more for the first half and the possibilities that it missed in the second..

2022 Red Carpet

As always, we announce our book club of two annual awards for the books we have read during the year. so, here goes:

  1. The most enjoyable fantasy series we read this year. Better for all the books being read in the same year – The Scholomance series by Naomi Novik
  2. The best age is no bar book – The Minor Mage by T. Kingfisher
  3. The most magical of magical realism books – The Inheritance of Orquidia Divina by Zoraida Cordova
  4. The most different fantasy series in modern times – The Mirror Visitor series by Christelle Dabos
  5. The most unique take on humans and humanity, not to mention ‘hairy household deities’ – The Humans by Matt Haig
  6. The most poignant and amazingly written book, a perfect fit to the Pope’s statement about a ‘ famine of peace’- Apeirogon by Colum McCann
  7. The most warm hearted book – Love and Saffron by Kim Fay
  8. The most over rated book of the year – You made a Fool of Death with your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi
  9. The most flingable book – The Black Witch by Laurie Forest
  10. The most rapid dnf book by us despite rave reviews – An Ember in the Ashes by SabaaTahir

We would like thank everyone who has read our reviews in the past one year and a very special thanks to those who have liked them and also commented. We are as always open to suggestions for books that we can read. Often, in the past the best books have come to us through recommendations.

Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year and a great year for reading in 2023.

Food connects

No matter where one comes from, all that is required is a slightly open mind with regards to food and you can just travel the world without leaving home. The world becomes your plate. Love and Saffron by Kim Fay is one those books which bring to the fore the importance of food in relationships and in opening up the mind and perceptions. This is a kindly, gentle book which makes the reader feel warm hearted and hopeful in a world full of disenchantment.

The concept of food helping people to integrate, rediscover lost selves or form new personalities, is not new but in this epistolary novel, set in the early 1960s all these ideas are dealt with through letters between the fan of a weekly food column and its writer. Imogen Fortier lives on Camano Island, Washington State and writes a column involving mainly food for a local magazine. Her articles are read by Joan Bergstrom in Los Angeles since her mother subscribes to the magazine. A congratulatory letter enclosing Saffron and a recipe from Joan starts off a close friendship through correspondence between the two women despite a more than twenty year age gap. Through letters they are able to share a lot more with each other than they have with anyone else in their lives.

The letters which start off formally soon become warmer, move to a first name and then nickname basis. Their discussions of food leads each woman to set out and discover newer flavours, tastes and ingredients. For the reader it is fascinating to think that in the 1960s saffron was considered to be rare and exotic. For Imogen, who lives in a small town, the discovery of Mexican food presents considerable challenges for sourcing ingredients and Joan sets out to expand her own knowledge by visiting specialised markets. The women recount their culinary experiences to each other as well as commenting on the news of the time and their own loves and lives. This exchange of correspondence brings changes and new friends into both women’s lives and has a positive impact on their immediate families, not to mention discovery of new skills.

For the reader the book touches the heart, not just the stomach, and leaves a contented feeling which any discussion of food is wont to. An epistolary book always makes us either want to write a letter or better still receive one. It truly is a dying art and WhatsApp just does not tug the heartstrings in the same way. It is certainly a book for this season even though it’s not inherently christmasy.

Like Dreamers do

The Dreamers trilogy is a follow-on from the Raven Cycle quartet, by Maggie Stiefvater. In Greywaren, the third book in the trilogy, the saga of the Lynch brothers continues, all questions but one are answered and it’s all neatly tied up. There is really not much we can say about the book without giving away huge spoilers but we liked the way Maggie Stiefvater managed to tie up a lot of loose ends. The book jumps back and forth between the present and the time the Lynch brothers’ parents moved to America, bought their house, the Barns, and dreamt a life for themselves. 

The series started with Ronan, who in the earlier series turned out to be a person capable of bringing objects and sometimes even people back from his dreams. In the Dreamers trilogy we are told there are a lot more people like Ronan and there are people as well as animals who have been brought into the world from dreams. There were also a group of people known as the moderators who are identifying dreamers and killing them because of a prophecy that a dreamer would end the world in flames. The first two books basically set out the entire underground society and eco system of the dreamers and the dreamt. When a dreamer dies, his or her dreamt people also fall asleep. The one way to keep them awake is through objects known as ‘sweetmetals’. These are basically extraordinary works of art imbued with considerable emotion by the artist and which have extraordinary powers.

Primarily, like we mentioned at the start, the trilogy is about the Lynch brothers. Declan is normal, Ronan a dreamer and the youngest, Matthew, a dreamt one. The character of the eldest sibling, Declan, whom we always thought was a bit too straight-laced, stiff upper lipped and cold is explained from the perspective of his childhood. We also got the feeling that this book is really Declan’s book and he is its hero. Unexpectedly there is a lot of interdimensional stuff which ties into the dreams. And there are many reveals about all the characters and of course about Ronan, leading to a completely new perspective. 

The series as a whole is a wonderful allegory for art giving life to dreams. Not just any art but the kind of art which has that certain something or the ‘je ne sais quoi’ quality to it, making it inexplicably stand out or draw people to it.

Though the story wound up with fairly satisfactory explanations and conclusion, we did feel at the end as though something was missing. It lacked the usual Maggie Stiefvater flair and style. We were worried about what the conclusion of the series would mean for characters we have known and followed over the Raven Cycle quartet and the Dreamers trilogy and were worried about possible devastation, but the heartstrings remained intact. 

The foundation matters

Can one live in luxury on a rotten foundation? Can a person enjoy the fruits of power when the means of obtaining it are wrong in every way? Naomi Novik‘s third and final book in the Scholomance series, The Golden Enclaves, is all about foundations – of people, of societies and of living spaces.

Last week we reviewed the first two books in the Scholomance the series which we had read earlier. The second book ending on a killer cliff hanger had us tearing out our hair and wanting to fling things at the author. We even scrounged about on the net and found a free download of the first chapter of book three but it did not do anything to alleviate the suspense. Fortunately The Golden Enclaves was released at the end of September and we managed to get hold of it and finally read it.

Warning – This review is going to have spoilers for the first two books!

At the outset, we have to say we are in awe of Naomi Novik’s imagination. How does one think up a world like this? It is so detailed and so different. The characters, both good and bad are so unusual, as are the horrific mals. Like most fantasy there is a clear line drawn between good and evil but there is also a compromise which is derived from practicality and how much evil does good have to put up with for the sake of accepting the inevitable. After all people are people. We loved the writing style and the book stayed with us long after we finished it.

El had managed to band together her friends at the end of book 2 and gotten everyone out of the school safely except for Orion who had pushed her out at the end and remained to fight the mawmouth ( the biggest, ugliest and hideousest type of mal around). El comes back into the real world, reeling from the loss of Orion and is pretty much immediately thrown into the deep end with enclaves being targeted, destroyed and on the verge of war. Much of the storyline from the earlier books comes together and Novik manages to explain many things which had been bothering us as readers in the first two books. There is a lot about how the magical community live in the enclaves, the questionable choices made by the privileged to maintain their lifestyles. Those who are on the outside are aspiring to get into the enclaves no matter how they are treated and how creepy the whole set up is. El’s mother was one of the few who knew she couldn’t live in an atmosphere like that. For a very good reason!

Usually the stories which captivate a reader the most, are the stories of sacrifice. They are the ones that last and stay with you for the longest time. Harry Potter’s mother’s sacrifice in saving him resonates through seven books. El’s father’s sacrifice in saving her and her mother is a recurring theme in this trilogy. There is something about the ultimate sacrifice that makes for a strong corner stone of a story. Like Aslan said, sacrifice invokes deeper magic from the before the dawn of time.

The book was wonderful. We know a lot of readers have had a problem with the whole El – Liesel relationship but we just put it down to Novik pandering to the requirements of publishers by belatedly inserting something which just doesn’t fit into the flow or the narrative. It is so unnecessary that it was obviously done under pressure. We just wish publishers would stay away from storylines and not insist on ‘requirements’ that jar the reading experience. A book like this will sell regardless.

The Golden Enclaves is a wonderful conclusion, fast paced, emotionally moving, about friendships and family that stand by you in your hour of need. More importantly it is about doing things the right way without causing harm. El’s upbringing by her mother stands her in good stead. El also finally acknowledges that it is because of the discipline instilled by her mother that she constantly pulls back from misusing her immense power.

We will definitely be reading this series again as they are not the kind of books which can be easily set aside. But please can we get an edition of The Golden Enclaves with the unnecessary bits deleted?