Found in translation

my-grandmother-sends-her-regardsSweden is in the news. So not surprisingly, being readers, our conversation soon veered from supposed attacks, to horses rescued from wells, to an English translation of a Swedish book we had read recently. Fredrik  BackmansMy Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises‘ (American title ‘My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She Is Sorry’) translated by Henning Koch, was delightful, quirky, poignant, full of humour and throughly enjoyable. 

Seven year old Elsa is precocious to the hilt and  her Grandmother is her superhero because to her ‘a grandmother is both a sword and a shield’. Her school and her mother think Elsa needs to learn to ‘fit in’ but her grandmother knows that she is perfect and introduces her to an entire land of the imagination where currency is not coins but good stories. Elsa and her grandmother are not just inhabitants of this land together but friends in real life. When her grandmother dies she entrusts Elsa with the task of delivering a series of letters, personally, to various people that takes her on a journey of discovery. 

PS: Often stories get lost in translation.No matter how good the translation is, it is not possible to bring out the nuances of one language in another. But strangely we didn’t even realise that this was a translation. 

LL: I think I was initially too absorbed by the craziness of the grandmother who fires paintballs from her balcony and breaks into the zoo in the middle of the night and assaults beleaguered police officers with animal poop. 

PS: Any child who has read ‘superior literature’ would want a Grandmother who can argue the merits of Spider-Man vis a vis Harry Potter. 

LL: The book is full of blurring of lines between being a child and being an adult, reality and fantasy, goodness and evil and death and life and all of this somehow combines to make a story that sharpens the focus on life. 

This is a book about accepting people and their eccentricities. And about how the circumstances of life can effect people differently: “Because not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.” It is also about finding unlikely companionship in a journey dealing with loss. Ultimately we were a little envious that Fredrik  Backman, being so young (in his early thirties when he wrote this book), can write so insightfully.

Rising to Expectations

waters-of-eternal-youthDonna Leon’s last few books were disappointingly lackluster and almost felt like they had not been written by her. So it was with great trepidation that we approached The Waters of Eternal Youth, The 25th Guido Brunetti Book, wondering whether we should read it at all. But we are fans and as such we always live in hope as far as our favourite writers are concerned. And this time the hope was justified. Leon seems to be back in full form, almost. Brunetti, his family and colleagues seemed themselves again and of course Venice, with its beauty and problems and food, which largely accounts for the appeal of the books, was ever present. 

Brunetti, Leon’s  food, book and family loving Commissario  of Police has been asked by his mother-in-law’s friend to look into a possible crime committed against her granddaughter fifteen years ago. The girl had fallen into a canal and remained underwater long enough for her brain to be damaged. But her grandmother was convinced that she had been pushed because being an aqua-phobic she would not have voluntarily walked close enough to the water to have fallen in accidentally. Typically, while carrying out the investigation Brunetti’s interactions with those around him, their discussions on life in Venice and the problems faced by the city provide the main focus of the book.

The reader also gets to see Brunetti physically ageing in this book and its not just a matter of his children getting older. He now feels the need to stop at the second landing, while climbing up to his flat, to catch his breath. He needs his reading glasses and is less sure of his footing on a wet street. These little personal insights, not to mention his pleasure in the Paccheri Con Tonno his wife serves him for dinner, make him, as always, a character the reader can easily identify with. Moreover there is the aspect of Brunetti’s moral compass, which, since Donna Leon is back in form, is evident that much more. In a cynical world, it is good to see humanity, at least within the pages of a book.

Brunetti’s colleague, Claudia Griffoni, also has a prominent role in the investigation, with her place in the Questura having developed over the last few books. Her relationship with Brunetti serves to bring a female point of view to the police work ( beyond that of the slightly frightening perfection of Signorina Elettra).

Only a woman while investigating a crime could with such assurance  reason that women don’t use knives to kill and the proof of this lies in the kitchen. 

“The knives are kept in the kitchen, and their husbands pass through there every day, countless times, yet very few of them get stabbed. That’s because women don’t use knives and they don’t stab people.”

We were also interested to learn that Italy has a statute of limitations, even for serious crimes. And that the period continue to run during the course of the trial. So if the trial takes too long and the conviction does not happen within the ten year period from the date of the crime, the accused can walk away free. All the more reason to procrastinate, one would think. Strange are the ways of criminal procedure. 

The Waters of Eternal Youth is a typical Donna Leon mystery in which the mystery is more a backdrop for the development and journey of it’s dramatis personae. As such you forget to look for the red herrings and loopholes in the plot and focus instead on the hard moral questions asked by the characters. 

Reading Royally

the-uncommon-reader

What would happen if the Queen became a serious reader? She is, after all, known to have many interests – horses, dogs, hats etc. But somehow the public does not know if she reads and what she reads. Unlike certain Heads of States (more precisely Barrack Obama) who put out their Christmas reading lists and Summer reading lists, the Queen does no such thing. So Alan Bennett‘s delightful little book ‘The Uncommon Reader’ is an imagined account of the Queen discovering books.

We very much enjoyed chancing upon this hilarious and sometimes touching story of a new reader, immersed in the books she has discovered. As readers we can understand, when the Queen claims a ‘slight cold’ that keeps her in bed, all because she is in the midst of a good book. As also the desire to shut out the rest of the world and her resentment at the call of duty as they interfere with finishing the book in hand. All readers are vaguely aware that this shutting out of the world causes  considerable irritation in the people around us who want to make demands on our time. But that is of course their problem. It is not then surprising that the reader can sympathise very much with the Queen when the irritation actually manifests itself in the insidious ways in which her household and equerries try to separate her from her books.

In a way some of the situations in the book are very similar to the Yes Minister series where the bureaucrats’ require those under their purview to conform and not go off and do their own thing without permission. Similarly, the Queen while attending functions, is not supposed  to veer away from the prescribed formula of asking her subjects where they have travelled from and how long it took them to get there. Instead she stumps people by asking them what they are reading! And surprisingly, no one seemed to have an answer. Apparently nobody reads.

The book has many insights into what readers feel about books and reading ‘A book did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic.’  and ‘Books are wonderful aren’t they? At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderise one.’

As always, it’s nice to read books about books and the reading experience. And one always identifies with the obstacles faced by readers in their pursuit of books, no matter where they come from. Alan Bennett’s novella is quirky and whimsical and makes the Queen sound very human, particularly when she has a book open on her lap, while seated in her carriage, and just looks up once in a while to wave to the people lining the road. Somewhat like a child who is ostensibly studying but actually reading Harry Potter behind the cover of a school text book.

 

And so it creeps…

lockwood-creeping-shadow

The fourth book in the Lockwood & Co. series is weird and wonderful – magical, swashbuckling, nail biting, humourous and on the edge of the seat terrifying. All at the same time. If you ever wondered if it is possible to be scared out of your wits by a story and yet unable to put the book down, then this series is it.

The ‘Problem’ continues and is expanding. The ghosts and shades and lurkers and poltergeist are out in full force. Only the kids can see them and are employed by the ghost hunting agencies to destroy these spirit manifestations and prevent people from getting ‘ghost touched’ and dying.

Lockwood & Co, the smallest agency in London, lost Lucy, one of its agents, when she decided to quit at the end of book 3. Lucy starts off book 4 as a freelance operative. She hunts ghost in a kind of warped partnership with a talking skull in a jar which only she can hear. And though he is a major irritant for Lucy, his wise crack comments, constant threats and encouragement to Lucy to kill off various people, makes him a wonderfully interesting character. Understandably, when the jar is stolen, Lucy turns to Lockwook & Co for help, thus recreating the atmosphere of the series and bringing into play the interpersonal relations and tensions within the agency. Not to mention the food!  At one point Lucy, after being attacked, makes her way to 24, Portland Row, the Agency/house/Headquarters of Lockwood & Co and is found by Lockwood in the middle of the night, dripping blood on the doorstep. Once Lockwood and George, erring on the side of caution, liberally  bandage her up, they promptly set about making waffles! It is partly to comfort Lucy and partly because that is what they do – eat doughnuts and waffles in the middle of the night, drink tea and banish ghosts. The food is decidedly unhealthy and therefore that much more interesting. In this book, other than the usual hauntings, the team has to deal with and face blackmarketiers, whole haunted villages, and threats from the owners of the two biggest agencies.

Spoiler Alert!

What a shocker about Penelope Fittes, the owner of the huge Fittes Agency! We were left wondering if the activates of the founders of the Fittes and Rotwell Agencies had actually caused the Problem. We presume book 5 (apparently the last in the series) will be about Lockwood & Co solving the mystery behind the Problem. The Creeping Shadow ended leaving the reader with lots of questions, which we presume will all be answered in the next book. In the meantime, Lucy is back in the Agency and reunited with the skull.

The book was funny and scary in equal measures and unputdownable. Read in bed with a huge mug of tea and preferably before dark, unless you are very brave.

Recreating the Past

 

selene

Cleopatra is one of the most famous Queens in history. And though she was a fairly mixed up person and a very complex personality, she did seem to rise above all the criticism. One doesn’t think of her as anything other than QUEEN (Not to mention the  ‘What a nose!’ courtesy Asterix comics). But for most of us the knowledge of ancient Egyptian history ends with her death and the conquest of Egypt by Rome. What surprised us when we read Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter was the fact that she had a daughter. In fact Cleopatra had three children with Mark Anthony, other than Caesarion who was Julius Caesar’s son. We suppose history doesn’t talk much about the conquered. Kleopatra Selene, her twin brother Alexander and the youngest sibling, Ptolomy were all captured and sent to Rome to live with Mark Anthony’s first wife who also happened to be the sister of Octavian (Caesar Augustus), and publicly displayed as spoils of war.

Written in the first person, the book takes the reader through all the emotions felt by Selene, of watching her parents die, being taken prisoner, her younger brother’s death on the way to Rome, the subsequent death of her twin after some years and life in a city which was very alien to her despite the fact that her father was Roman. Though her day to day existence was comfortable it was also very uncertain. Selene was at all times aware that she and her twin were alive only at the sufferance of Octavian and throughout the book her longing to return to Egypt is an underlying theme. What is interesting are the comparisons Selene makes between the cultured sophistication of Egypt with its influence of Greek civilisation and what she sees as the barbarism of Rome.

Selene,  the only surviving member of the Ptolomy dynasty, went on to become Queen of  Numidia and Mauretania, but she is not a towering historical figure like her mother. Michelle Moran however has captured this little known story and recreated it. We found the style of the book effortlessly readable and although Selene is very young at the start, her emotions, reactions and understanding of events are that of a much older person giving the reader an insight into those times. If one is in the mood for historical fiction, this is a book we would recommend as an interesting read.

Time and again…

imageShe(Time) has told me everything,’ Wen went on. ‘I know that time was made for men, not the other way around. I have learnt how to shape it and bend it. I know how to make a moment last forever, because it already has. And I can teach these skills even to you, Clodpool. I have heard the heartbeat of the universe. I know the answers to many questions. Ask me.’

The apprentice gave him a bleary look…

‘Er…what does the master want for breakfast?’ he said.

Wen looked down from their camp and across the snowfields and purple mountains to the golden daylight creating the world, and mused upon certain aspects of humanity. ‘Ah,’ he said ‘one of the difficult ones.’ (Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett)

After a quote like that, we feel we could end the blog post there. Just those few words say volumes about life, time, humanity and, about Terry Pratchett’s writing. We have been feeling a bit lost the last few weeks as normally around this time of the year a new Discworld book would have come out and we would have been rubbing our hands with glee and pushing everything else aside to devote ourselves completely to it. With a sigh we discussed how that is no longer going to happen and as a consolation we decided to return to one of our favourites and reread(to the power of zillion) the book we keep returning to time and again. Time being the operative word here because the Thief of Time is about the personification of Time.

The Auditors of reality are recurring villains in the Discworld books. These grey drab beings, the bureaucrats of the Universe, hate life and want to put an end to Discworld because it is disorderly and messes up the paperwork. They want the son of Time who is a clock maker to build the ultimate clock which will stop time and bring the world to a standstill. Death who has become involved in life, along with the other horsemen of the Apocalypse, who against their own nature have been corrupted by the human body personifications they have taken on, does not want the Apocalypse to happen. But they are prevented from interfering directly, so those who are mostly mortal but outside of humanity, like Death’s granddaughter Susan and Lobsang/Jeremy, the son of Time with a very split personality (literally), assisted by Lu-Tze the eight hundred year old History monk and the renegade auditor Myra Le Jean, combine forces to save the world and stop it from coming to an end on Wednesday at 1 o’clock. Their main ammunition against the Auditors being chocolate.

If all of this does not sound mad enough, there is also a regenerating Yeti and a reincarnated Abbot (who remembers his previous lives but unfortunately has to live through the embarrassment of being a baby in each re birth, and demanding ‘bikkits’ and his potty in the middle of very serious conversations). Then there is Qu, the monk who keeps developing exploding begging bowls and equips the History monks going out into the world. Not to forget the mysterious milkman who was part of the Apocalypse band but then decided to take off on a solo career.

Subtly woven into all this chaos (or Kaos) is a heavy dose of philosophy, the nature of death and time, the interaction between the two and their inability to be disentangled from life. ‘The way of Mrs. Cosmopolite’ that Lu-Tze follows is made up of standard everyday sayings but all true philosophers know that it is the simple statements like ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’, ‘a little soap and water never killed anyone’ and ‘I haven’t got all day, you know’, that provide the guidelines for dealing with the difficulties of life and the universe. There are portents in a swirl and deep, complex instructions in mundane words. Similarly, what may appear to be an amusing tale contains paradoxes galore. The son of Time who later takes over the job from his mother, is apprenticed to a sweeper/ History monk. But who is truly the master and who is the one learning? Is it the sweeper who can even sweep away time, the master of the arts of Okidoki and Deja-fu  or is it Time who can easily turn the sweeper to dust with a flick of his hand?

This is a book absolutely worth reading, even for people who are not Terry Pratchett or Discworld or fantasy fans, because it has everything that one could want in a book. There are layers to be unravelled and with each reading one goes deeper and deeper into the book. It’s a thrilling race to save the world with (possibly)high tech gadgets, superheroes of a sort, monks who can bend time, serious amounts of humour, irony, ‘punes’, oodles of interesting characters and a valley of permanently blooming cherry trees. Susan Sto Helit, in our opinion, is one of the most amazing characters ever written. After all, how many people do we know who have the ability to fade into the foreground, walk through walls, ride the Pale Horse and live outside time? Although Susan’s mother was adopted by Death, Susan has inherited certain family traits as “some genetics are passed on via the soul.”

Not a Fairy Tale Princess

 

imageWe all grew up with stories of princesses being perfect, beautiful and delicate as flowers. They were so sensitive that they could be disturbed by a single pea through layers of mattresses. They were forever in trouble and required to be rescued either by fairy godmothers or by handsome princes. Basically they were frail and a little empty headed. We don’t know if the fairy tales have changed at all but certainly princesses in fantasy novels are diametrically opposite to the stereotypes. So Kelsey Glynn in Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen presents quite a contrast. To start off with, the girl has no claim to beauty and is overweight. She is tough, outspoken, politically astute and rashly brave. The coronation scene in the book encapsulates the new age princess in a way like nothing can; despite being stabbed in the back, literally, she insists on completing the ceremony, bloodied and with the dagger sticking out of her shoulder and only permits herself to faint after it is over.

PS: Princesses, these days, are the ones who do the saving and the traditional saviours seem to be going out of business. I suppose that is an instance of woman power, accepted not just by readers, who had possibly been hankering for it for quite some time, but also by publishers who finally acknowledge that it sells.

LL: Kelsey’s is a fascinating character. Although she has been trained to rule and survive from the very beginning, interestingly the training happens in isolation. Despite that she has considerable empathy for her people.

PS: I like the fact that she is keen to learn bad words from her guards and hankers for books which are hard to come by in her world. I spent a lot of time while reading the first book, wondering exactly where the story was located in place or time. It initially seemed like another world but there were too many references to this one.

LL: I guess that becomes clearer in the next book, Invasion of the Tearling, the second book in the trilogy.

PS: Which I felt was one of those rare middle books that turned out to be better than the first one. It really raised my expectations of the third and final book which is out only at the end of the year.

LL: Well there is an element of magic, of other worldliness, another Queen from a neighbouring kingdom, who is the bad guy, who demands tribute in the form of slaves from Kelsey’s kingdom. And there are references to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Not to mention the fact that despite the troubled kingdom, Kelsey loves to read. All of this provides for a sympathetic heroine and an intriguing story.

PS: It is quite common these days to find that the protagonist likes books. Most authors realise that it means instant likeability with the readers who identify with that aspect of the character.

The Queen of the Tearling has apparently been snapped up for a movie franchise, possibly because the story is relentlessly dramatic. It is a dark and gripping tale and yet it has a protagonist who instantly appeals because of her concern with doing the right thing. The rapid progress of the story however does not give away too much so one is left wondering about a lot of things which are only made clear in the second book. Erika Johansen has however, paced the story fairly well across the trilogy in that, at least so far, the reader does not feel let down at any stage. We would definitely recommend the book to readers of fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction.