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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a story about a withdrawn woman, with a scarred face, afflicted with OCDs and a troubled past.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…

 

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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.

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.

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.

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.

A roller coaster to nowhere

9793AEDD-156B-4F54-B3BE-AD1C60F87CFD.jpegCaraval by Stephanie Garber is a good example of why one should not go by covers and reviews when picking up a book to read. Although, there is little else to go by these days. It was a good thing that we borrowed the book from the library instead of buying it.

A magical game on an isolated island to which you need an invitation and you can choose to either participate or watch, had so much potential. The main character Scarlett had been writing for years to Legend, the mysterious game master of Caraval, requesting an invitation. From the time she and her sister were little girls, they hoped that a participation in the game and the chance to win a wish would help them to get away from their tyrannical father. After years of no response forthcoming, the invitation finally comes just before Scarlett’s wedding. But she is now reluctant to participate and her sister Tella pretty much abducts her and takes her to the island where Scarlett finds herself unwillingly drawn into the game.

The rest of the story is a roller coaster where the reader along with Scarlett does not know what is real and what is part of the game. The game takes place within what seems to be a large amusement park type setting, which can be, at times, quite frightening. Everything gets turned on it’s head at some point and none of the characters are what they seem. The descriptions of Caraval are lavish and Garber successfully  brings out the decadence of it all. The story  could have been exciting had it been strung together a little more tightly and had the characters not been so shallow. Events are just randomly put in without much explantion to make the story move to the author’s convenience.

There were no plausible reasons given to explain the intense cruelty of the girls’ father or their grandmother’s obsession with Legend. Scarlett’s haste to get out of the game after having spent her entire life trying to get there and her constant guilt for one thing or another becomes irritating. There was no real sense of a competition taking place and the ending was just too convenient and contrived.

While reading, the book moves at a rapid pace and the reader goes along willingly with it, accepting the twists and turns, with the expectation that all will be explained and answers will be found. It’s only once the book has ended that one feels cheated and hence irritated since there are no answers. Unless the author has left everything to the sequels, which in itself seems unfair. Besides, even fantastical magic should have some rules and explanation for the way it works. world building for a fantasy novel is of the utmost importance. This was truly a YA book in the sense that it lacked depth and the numerous comparisons to The Night Circus are totally unwarranted. Frankly we can’t understand why the book got such amazing reviews and was mentioned all over the place last year. It can be read if one has nothing better on hand.