Meandering

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The story begins on a dark winter solstice night when “the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds”. Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is a tale which is part mystery, part ghost story, part folklore, it  is slow to start, sometimes sluggish and meanders all over like the river on the banks of which it is set. 

A country Inn on the banks of the Thames in the late nineteenth century draws people for the stories and folklore recounted by the proprietresses husband. The one story that particularly fascinates locals and visitors alike is that of the ghostly boatman who either helps those in trouble upon the river and will see them to the shore or, depending on whether their time has come, he helps deliver them across to the ‘other’ shore, Charon like. 

The mystery in the story begins with the badly injured and drenched stranger who, on solstice night suddenly appears at the inn with a seemingly dead little girl in his arms and collapses. No one can explain how the child later comes alive and to whom she belongs. Initially people at the inn think she is the daughter of the man who brought her in but then it turns out he is a photographer from Oxford who only found the girl in the river. She herself, cannot speak and is unable to say who she is. There is something mesmerising about the child that those who come in contact with her either want to take care of her or fondly think of their own children and want to go home and hold them. There are many, indeed, who want to claim the child and the story goes back and forth between the claimants.

The river as a setting is varied in all its moods and for the locals it’s moods are an ever present reality. Diane Setterfield’s descriptions are evocative of this and give a mystic quality to the Thames which is as much a character in the book as the numerous other characters. However, like the river, we felt the tale meanders a tad too much. Possibly intentionally, in keeping with the ebb and flow of the Thames, but for the reader it becomes tiresome.

We also could not decide whose story Setterfield really wanted to tell. As the book veers  from the inn, its inhabitants and customers, to the photographer who had found the child, the nurse who treats her and the various individuals and families who lay a claim to the little girl and includes all their back stories, the reader wonders where it is all going. The girl’s mystery slowly becomes a part of the folklore and legend on the river but she remains a hazy character. The realisation comes very late for the reader, that the girl is not the protagonist of the book but only the means by which everyone else’s story is told. After meandering through the myriad different aspects of the story, Setterfield abandons the reader to flounder midstream wondering where the tale has taken them.

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Diversity – A myth?

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 When an African American girl growing up on the south side of Chicago goes on to become the First Lady and her husband the first African American President of the United States, the world gets the impression that America is an inclusive country. The reaction to the Presidency from some quarters, subsequent events and even Michelle Obama’s autobiography, go some way in dispelling that myth.

 The title of Michelle Obama’s book – Becoming, applies to her becoming different things at different stages in her life – a student, a lawyer, a wife, a working mother and then the challenge of becoming a First Lady. Throughout the book the reader is subtly given the impression that the title also refers to the pressure that women always feel – whether what they do is ‘becoming’ or not. The title is obviously a play on the two meanings. In Michelle Obama’s case this awareness of appropriateness is further intensified by being African American and because of the scrutiny she is held up to  at college, work and in the White House.

 Obama talks a lot about being African American and being treated with a different yardstick and also the strange dichotomy of her trip to Africa and feeling entirely out of place over there. For us this was interesting because we have seen this happening to with first and second generation immigrants who feel as if they are neither here nor there. For a people to continue feeling this way a few hundred years down the line surely says something about how closed society can be and how people rarely overcome conditioning.

 Obama’s determination and ability to be her own self at all times is admirable as is her ability to not get carried away or allow her children to get carried away by the privileged position they found themselves in. Hardly surprising considering she was brought up by practical, grounded parents. In her person and achievements she proves the theory that no matter what economic disadvantages one may grow up with, all that is ultimately required is a supportive and stable family to allow one to ‘become’. Obama is also very aware of being a woman in a man’s world,  something all working women realise early on but she is open and forthright about the difficulties faced by her. Throughout the book she talks about the sense of responsibility she feels towards those around her, her position and to the nation as a whole. However she does not let this sense of responsibility define her.

 More interesting are Michelle Obama’s insights about her husband which makes the reader feel he couldn’t but have become President considering what an unusual man he is. The candour in the book comes across to the reader as well as the fact that the book is written simply and is extremely readable. She is able to succinctly and simply put forward what she has to say which proves she must have been a good lawyer despite her having decided that the profession was not for her.

 There was enough hype and giddy promotion that came along with the book, unsurprising as Michelle Obama has been one of the more popular First Ladies. But one can appreciate the popularity in light of the fact that one of the most difficult things she has done was not becoming First Lady but in watching her and her husband’s legacy be dismantled but continuing to be dignified despite it.

Race relations

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Dragons have fascinated the human mind from time immemorial. There’s no denying that. Whether they are to be slayed or sought out to provide sage counsel or  sought out for their hoards of gold, dragon’s and their stories are bound to capture the imagination. 

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is a slightly different dragon story. Seraphina the protagonist has a big secret, she is herself a half dragon but in human form and has scales on parts of her body. She thinks she is alone. On her world dragons and humans had battled for centuries but finally a peace was brokered and dragons who could take human form were allowed to enter human countries as such. The peace is tenuous at best because of people’s suspicion and the nature of dragons who are a bit Vulcan like in their lack of emotion and dependence on logic. They think in ‘higher’ maths! The dragons have moved away from their gold hordes and now instead horde knowledge and books. Some of them live in human cities but have to be monitored by other dragons to ensure they do not become too human like. The humans in turn think they are too dragon like, so are always wary of them.

Though most people want to get on with their lives and want peace, the malcontents on either side, as always, are looking for opportunities to use the suspicion and brew trouble. Seraphina finds herself caught in the midst of this with her unique viewpoint from both sides and seeks to find her own unique place in a world where she neither belongs nor can be accepted on either side.

In its own way this is a book for our times when we are constantly struggling with accepting the ‘other’ and identity is restricted by the familiar and by conditioning. Suspicion is rife and even small differences are used to fan resentment. Very few are willing to accept anything beyond their own comfort zone. Though Seraphina is a fantasy set in a different world, it could well stand as an allegory for race relations in this one. Ultimately the realisation has to come that there is good and bad, well intentioned and ill willed creatures on all sides. People will be people, no matter what form they come in.

Middling

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The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air book 2) by Holly Black – A review in two parts.

Before reading the book(but after reading one sneak preview chapter:

We could not wait for the book to be published; daily counting down the waiting list in the library. The preview chapter was fabulous and took off from the end of The Cruel Prince (read our review here). Jude, through political machinations has become the power behind the faerie throne as the king’s seneschal. Cardan, as the king who has to obey Jude for a year and a day, spends his time enjoying the other perks of wearing the crown while Jude does the actual ruling. The whole of faerie is rejoicing and in a festive mood. We couldn’t wait to see what Jude, a human, would do to shape faerie. Also, having read the short novella – The Lost Sisters, we were looking forward to Jude and her twin sister Taryn joining forces and giving the fairies a tough time on behalf of humans. The excitement built up over time with speculation as to whether the book would tie in with the standalone book The Darkest Part of the Forest (our review here). We looked forward to Jude continuing to manipulate things so that her foster younger brother Oak could enjoy a childhood before he ascending the throne of fairie, of Jude kicking ass along with her group of spies known as the Court of Shadows and overcoming all obstacles in her path.

Having read the book:

Caught by the typical middle book syndrome, the story goes nowhere and in fact rehashes a lot of the issues from the first book. Taryn is still Taryn and Jude is less Jude. She is still trying to deal with her foster father issues; the fairie general Madoc is still trying to control her and despite everything she is still pleased with even a hint of approval coming from him. Cardan is still wishy washy except for maybe right at the very end. The book starts with a prologue which sets a very different tone from the preview chapter that had been provided to whet the readers’ appetites. The fairie half sister Viv was a more supportive and stronger personality in the previous book. In fact everyone felt ‘less’ in this book. The reader is constantly reminded that Jude is eighteen and inexperienced and dealing with fairies who have been around for centuries. The constant refrain of power being easy to get and difficult to hold onto becomes tedious. The only thing that is accomplished is that the reader is made aware of how alone Jude is. Even her flashes of brilliance and her ability to lie, unlike the fairies, do not manage to save the book from being anything other than a middling middle book setting up for the grand showdown in book three.

  We are aware that a lot of people will not agree with us and the book does have five stars on Goodreads but it is what it is. We also got the feeling that perhaps Holly Black had been rushed through the writing of the second book by her publishers to capitalise on the success of the first one in the series. We did however love the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter and elsewhere in the book.

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Another ghostly tale

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  Who doesn’t like ghost stories? The kind that send chills up the spine, makes one’s hair stand on end and look askance at dark corners? The cover of City of Ghosts is certainly enough to send one hunkering under the blankets but then, is the tale itself scary enough to do all those things?

  Cassidy Blake is 12, has parents who write books about the paranormal –  her father to debunk and her mother as a believer. What her parents don’t realise is that Cassidy can actually see ghosts and when they tolerate her talking to her invisible friend Jacob they do not realise that he is actually a ghost – a young, comic reading, torn jeans and superhero t-shirt wearing, ghost.

  Victoria Schwab’s City of Ghosts is set up as a series. Cassidy’s parents are making a TV series about ghostly legends in different cities across the world. In this book, Cassidy, her vintage camera, parents, their cat Grim and Jacob travel to Edinburgh to film the first episode of the series. Cassidy is excited to be in Edinburgh, not only the birth place of the Harry Potter books  but a number of ghostly legends that she gets drawn into as she can not only see ghosts but also travel through the veil that divides this world from the ghostly one. She meets Lara, another young girl with similar abilities who explains to Cassidy the reason/purpose for being able to see the ghosts. But Lara is also very suspicious of Jacob and keeps warning Cassidy about him, thus expanding the mystery of his hanging around Cassidy. Truthfully speaking, we felt Lara was perhaps the most interesting character in the book and had some depth to her whereas the others only have potential.

  While written for children the book has its creepy elements, more so if seen from a parent’s point of view. Though readable and interesting  as stories go with flashes of V.E. Schwab’s flair for storytelling, the book is simplistic. Accept it, when it comes to ghostly stories for young people, the Lockwood series by Jonathan Stroud is now the standard. City of Ghosts does not manage to meet it. 

For the love of the alphabet

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 A tiny island off the coast of South Carolina is an independent county named after one Nevin Nollop, its founding father. Nollop is credited by the island with having composed the pangram – a sentence containing every letter of the alphabet – ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy fox’ – well known to people around the world who are learning to type. The idyllic island society has devoted itself to a liberal arts education and language is considered a national art form. Never very technically advanced, the country is even phasing out the few things it has, like the telephone.

  Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn is a quirky little epistolary novel written in the form of letters by the eponymous Ella Minnow Pea, her family and a few other islanders. The letters chronicle the events that take place after the lettered tiles which spell out the ‘quick brown fox’ pangram  on top of the town cenotaph, start to fall. The exceptionally mad town council sees this as a diktat from Nollop in his after life, telling the people of the island to stop using those letters of the alphabet in their vocabulary. As the cement binding the tiles decays and the tiles fall off at an alarming rate, the council proceeds to ban those letters and the words which include them, whether in writing or in speech. During the course of the book the letters written by the island people become lipograms since the words are selected in order to avoid the banned letters of the alphabet. Together with the reduction of the alphabet, the society on the island decays into chaos and authoritarianism. 

  We did wonder if Mark Dunn sat with a computer program to help him come up with the lipogram missives of the islanders or whether he did it manually. But fascinating either way. The language of the epistles is beautiful as behoves a society steeped in the liberal arts and letter writing. It is rare to come across a book with such wonderful vocabulary.

  Though the ending is predictable, the degeneration of the island into a dystopian state makes an engrossing read. All credit to Mark Dunn for coming up with this mind bogglingly original idea, it is totally unlike anything we have read before. And we read a lot. 

An authentic Leon

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  We have been largely disappointed by the last few Donna Leon books and were even beginning to wonder if they were ghost written or, horror of horrors, Leon had lost her touch. Her latest Commissario Brunetti book, The Temptation of Forgiveness, came as a relief. It had all the usual Leon touches that one has come to expect from a Brunetti book – meandering through the bridges, canals and squares of Venice, the interplay of tensions within the Questura (police station), the comforts of Brunetti’s home and his relationship with his family, the books he reads and thinks upon while eating his meals and drinking his wine. The only thing which we felt was sadly in short supply was the food which has become standard fare in Leon’s books. Reading about her detective enjoying each course of his meals gives the reader a vicarious enjoyment of them. Leaving that aside, this was a thought provoking book as the title itself indicates. 

  Brunetti is asked by Elisa Crosera, a friend and colleague of his wife, to find out if her fifteen year old son was buying drugs near his school as she suspected he had started using drugs. Subsequently Senora Crosera’s husband is found unconscious at the foot of a bridge and suffers brain damage. Brunetti suspects that the incident may not have been and accident. When Brunetti starts to investigate the man’s fall, he uncovers a probable scam involving elderly patients on medication in Venice and surrounding areas.

  As always Venice is magical and timeless, despite Brunetti’s ruminations on how things have changed in the city since the time of his youth. For us this book, more than any of the previous Brunetti books, was particularly interesting because of his constant thoughts about the efficacy of the laws and their strict obeyance. He sees parallels in Antigone, which he is reading. When Antigone seeks to do the right thing rather than obey an unjust diktat, Leon has her detective wonder about blindly obeying laws which benefit no one. By the end of the book Brunetti is torn, as an investigating authority, as to how far a perpetrator can be forgiven; whether circumstances should be taken into consideration before reporting a crime? His behaviour may not always be consistent but it is this humanity and his fallibility, as indeed his awareness of such fallibility, that lend to his appeal through all the books.