A different spin

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  It seems that that there are a number of books in the fantasy genre these days, inspired by eastern European folk tales. Or perhaps it’s just that we are picking them up in our desire to read about the snow and cold winds which we never see here. Spinning Silver is Naomi Novik‘s second such book after Uprooted (and the second one that we have read – see our review) and is very loosely inspired by the Rumplestiltskin story.

  Novik’s stories are filled with strong female characters who know their minds and don’t look to others to tell them what to do. Spinning Silver has three strong female protagonists who, despite coming from different backgrounds and being very different people, are very similar in the strengths they exhibit. They each have an innate ability to take hold of a situation and do what is required, without looking to others for help.

  Each chapter in the book is from a different character’s point of view and is, strangely enough, not at all confusing. The book starts with Miryem the daughter of a kind hearted and unsuccessful Jewish money lender in a small town. It is important to mention here that her family were Jews, because of the antisemitism exhibited by the surrounding characters in the story. The impact comes from the almost matter of fact way in which the prejudices are written of and also from the familiar attitudes of ‘them and us’ which still exist in any society. When Miryem finds her family close to starvation, she takes over her father’s business, hardens her heart and becomes known for turning silver into gold. As a result, she attracts the attention of the cruel and arrogant Staryk (supernatural elvish beings) King who wants her to turn silver into gold for him.

  Then there is Wanda, the battered daughter of a drunk poor farmer. Her mother who was buried under a magical tree manages, to some extent, to protect Wanda and her brothers but ultimately it is Wanda who has to protect herself and her brothers from their father and from a marriage that she does not want. Lastly there is Irina, the daughter of a Duke. She is married off by her father to the Tsar who is possessed by a demon who wants Irina for her part staryk blood. She then takes it upon herself to keep the demon at bay and somehow save her people from it.

  Spinning Silver is ultimately a book about the courage of these three women whose stories eventually link up during the course of the novel, though it may not be evident to the reader at once. All three of them have the ability to grit their teeth and get down to doing not just what was necessary but also empowering themselves. It is about taking care, not just yourself, but of others around you. It is also a book about families and about paying your debts.

 We enjoyed Spinning Silver much more than Uprooted (although we did love Uprooted when we read it). It is a much more layered tale and though the story was magical and at times fantastical, yet the tone of it was so practical. Just like the protagonists.

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Saints, owls and radios

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And you may wonder what the connection between the three things mentioned in the title is but they do come together beautifully in Maggie Stiefvater‘s All the Crooked Saints.

  After reading the Raven Boys quartet by Stiefvater, we could not help but get hold of her latest book which actually turned out to be very different. Good, but different. Much softer and more contemplative and, for us, all the more enjoyable for it.

  Set in the early 1960’s in the small, extended family settlement of Bicho Raro in Colorado, with rock and roll playing on the radio, the story centres around the Mexican American Soria family. They are a family of saints but with one person designated at a time to work miracles. The miracles however are not the kind that one would normally expect. The pilgrims who come seeking the miracles have to go through a two step process. The first performed by the saint manifests their inner darkness in some bizarre way (Marisita is hanging around in her wedding dress covered with butterflies and her own dedicated rain while Tony becomes at least twenty feet tall). It is the pilgrim who then has to understand what has happened and why, and perform the second miracle in order to accept and overcome their darkness. The Soria family are not allowed to help them with this process, so the pilgrims just hang around Bicho Raro, being carefully avoided by the family.

  In this background come the stories of Daniel, the young, current saint who falls in love with one of the pilgrims and those of his cousins Beatriz and Joaquin who are broadcasting a pirate radio station out of a truck. All in a town which is full of owls, but nobody seems to know why, other than that they herald miracles.

  The story could be categorised as magical realism and most reviewers have done just that. But we feel that other than the mention of Elvis and a whole load of 1950’s and 60’s songs, it’s mostly magic, atmosphere and inner demons. The book has been classified as a YA book, perhaps because Maggie Stiefvater’s earlier books are all YA with the, now necessary, degree of action and romance. It is probably this lack of world saving action which has resulted in a number of Stiefvater’s readers on Goodreads comparing the book unfavourably with the Raven Boys quartet.

  We personally felt that All the Crooked Saints is very much a book for adults, even though the publishing circles seem to have a check list of sex, violence and bad language for adult books. This book has none of that, but how many teenagers and people in their early twenties can truly understand and appreciate the concept of facing your own darkness, shortcomings, guilt etc. Understanding them and truly letting them go in order to be redeemed. We feel that perhaps one has to have lived, at least a little beyond the years when you feel you are the centre of the universe, to appreciate the beauty and quietness of the story.

  Stiefvater’s writing has only grown more lyrical through each book she has written. We loved the Raven Boys and totally loved and admired All the Crooked Saints but when we tried reading some of her early novels we gave up after the first few chapters. Which is probably good because that means there is hope yet for all of us who want to write but feel our writing is not that great.

A good witch

AF821452-3386-494A-BE17-B804BE448EB2  Mythological stories in general lack novelty. We have versions of the stories which already exist in our consciousness through tales heard and read since childhood. So how much can an author play around with a retelling? Stick too much to the original and it becomes boring, write something wildly different and it is unacceptable. However, Circe by Madeline Miller manages to find that ideal balance with a gripping retelling of the life of a minor immortal who is mentioned in a few passages in the Odyssey for turning Odysseus’s crew into pigs and then showing him how to get home after having delayed him for a year.

  Miller manages to flesh out a more human character for Circe who was the daughter of the Titan Helios, the sun god, and the nymph Perse (the daughter of Oceanus). Because she is not as lovely as an immortal should be, she receives only scorn in her father’s and grandfather’s courts. Perhaps because of the disregard of the immortals, she is drawn to humans in a different way from the other gods whose interest in humanity is purely for the sake of self aggrandisement. Through the book, written in the first person, Circe keeps referring back to the bleeding and battered Prometheus tied up in her father’s court before judgement was pronounced on him by Zeus for helping humans. The implication being that her own view of the treatment of humans was impacted in some way.

  Ultimately Circe is exiled, partly due to the politics played out between the Titans and Zeus, to the island of Aiaia which becomes her home. She teaches herself witchcraft and becomes a powerful witch and lives her life accompanied by wild beasts and the occasional visit from Hermes. It is at Aiaia where Odysseus, on his return journey to Ithaca after the Trojan war, encounters Circe. The way Miller tells the story, they are both fascinated with each other and find solace in each other without any element of entrapment. Even the crew being turned into pigs is explained as self defence.

  Circe is basically a feminist story about a woman who teaches herself her profession, lives her own life without any help from her family and yet she is always willing to help those who need her, including her sister who despite all her derision for Circe, calls her for help when giving birth to the Minotaur. The completely new perspective that Miller gives on Odysseus, as a man who cannot accept going back to a small life on a small island after having been on the centre stage and been the guiding force behind world events, is fascinating because it is so plausible.

  The story is, throughout, infused with the fickleness and perfidy of the immortals who are shown as self serving and basically full of themselves. In their desire only to be worshipped by humans but not really caring anything about the small lives of the mortals, is an explanation, as good as any, for why the religion might have died out. Even Athena the goddess of wisdom, does not seem have the wisdom to look beyond her own greatness. Only Prometheus is shown to have considerable nobility, grace and compassion. But then again, no human can possibly write about Prometheus without imbuing him with those qualities.

  Miller has written a gripping and easily readable book, shedding new light on a lot of known characters along the way. We absolutely loved this one.

The satisfaction of binge reading

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  While everyone is busy binge watching TV series on Netflix and Amazon Prime, we spent this month enjoying a bout of binge reading. When we started Maggie Stiefvater‘s The Raven Boys, the first book in the series, we hadn’t realised that all the four books in the The Raven Cycle had already been published. Oh the joy of finding out that one can read the entire series in one go! It just added to the excitement. So there were the two of us indulging in a serious case of parallel binge reading, getting irritated with anyone and everything taking our attention away from the books and messaging each other about parts that we really liked.

  The first book seemed to fit more into the paranormal genre but along the way the series converted into outright fantasy. Such fun! The Raven boys (Gansey, Ronan, Adam and Noah) are a foursome who attend a private school situated near the small town of Henrietta, Virginia. They end up forming a friendship with Blue, a local girl who’s the only non psychic in a family and house full of psychics. Henrietta lies on Ley lines which give the town and surroundings volatile magical energy and a mythology about a buried medieval Welsh king and members of his court who had possibly travelled to Henrietta through the Ley lines, or ghost road as Blue’s family call it. One of the boys, Gansey, is obsessed with searching for the buried king who is supposedly only asleep and the others get caught up in the search since it is believed that the king will grant a wish to whoever wakens him. In their search for the king and his court the five of them become a court of sorts of their own; with Gansey being the leader, Ronan the dreamer and poet and Adam the wizard. As such they form a little knot in the middle of everyone else, a part of the whole and yet separate.

  Stiefvater very beautifully juxtaposes modern kids with their cell phones, modern vocabulary and their obsession with cars, with the search for a medieval king, forests that speak Latin, boys that can bring objects out of their dreams and zany psychics. Her characters have quirks which makes them likeably weird. Stiefvater offsets the very dark portions in the books with the main characters’ staunch loyalty to each other and the affection of people around them. Without that we felt the books might have been too dire a read for us. We also learnt a lot about different types of cars which are mentioned repeatedly in the books, almost as if they were characters themselves (like Gansy’s orange Camaro).

  We also really liked Stiefvater’s use of Latin through the books which made it different and interesting. Strangely this did not distract from the story, despite us having to look up the meanings, since  not all of them were obvious. The style of writing makes the books more than just the story, which for us, as always, provided the likeability factor. A series one can truly be absorbed in.

 

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…

 

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.