The familiar comfort of poisons

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  The sun shining down on a typical English village in June, with its historic church, its inn providing tea and shortbread, its mandatory river, the small village shop and, of course,  the requisite murder. Mysteries don’t come more comforting than than this. Perhaps it’s  a hangover from Miss Marple days. But the twelve year old, pigtailed, brace wearing, chemistry protege, Flavia de Luce, is nothing like Miss Marple. She exudes intensity instead of wooliness and, even in her best attempts, does not manage to be either pleasant or comforting.

  In Alan Bradley‘s ninth Flavia book – The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place – Flavia and her two sisters, along with Dogger, their father’s man Friday/butler/ chauffeur/ gardener and for the purpose of this book – boatman, are on a boating holiday in an attempt to recuperate after the tragedy at the end of the previous book. The town of Volesthorpe and its church, St. Mildred’s in the Marsh have gained notoriety because it’s erstwhile Canon was hanged for having poisoned some of the parishioners.  Flavia, with the unerring accuracy of the detective, discovers the body of the Canon’s son whose death also seems suspicious. Then follows the usual discussions and theories on strychnine, potassium cyanide, arsenic etc and wonderful information on how to create a makeshift chemical laboratory. Flavia is not in her element, being away from her beloved house Buckshaw and her well equipped lab. She is also, and this is most distressing to the reader, away from her equally  beloved bicycle Gladys, her partner in various escapades and in the solving of so many previous crimes. However, being Flavia, she doesn’t allow adverse circumstances to hamper her investigations. 

  This book is a little different from the others as the relationship between Flavia and her sisters seems to be changing despite valiant efforts on the part of all three to maintain their usual acerbity. But Flavia, despite her grief, is as irrepressible as always and her love for chemistry carries her through all emotional upheavals. As always Bradley manages to make chemistry seem cool and one almost wishes that one had paid more attention in school.

  In these days when murder mysteries are becoming darker, more graphic about violence, with bloody details and even the older stories are being turned into dark television adaptations, it is rather comforting to read a story that in many ways harks back to a different age. The mystery itself is no less complicated but the protagonist and the rural setting make it an enjoyable and comforting read. To be savoured along with tea and shortbread. At least one is not likely to throw it up due to unending descriptions of blood and gore.

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Violent colours of a bleak island

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  Maggie Stiefvater’s  The Scorpio Races is all about magic, subtlety, myths and violence.  Magic of the stormy autumn seas that throw up the Capaill Uisce, the wild, meat eating water horses, straight out of Celtic myths; magic of the remote little island of Thisby which inexplicably holds some people and lets others go; the magic of the Scorpio Races held in November each year and which are the source of the islands identity; the magic of colours and the magic of love – of both humans and animals. Woven into it all is the magic of Stiefvater’s subtle writing which at times is poetry in prose. Except for the violence, nothing else is in your face. All emotions and feelings  are alluded to yet the reader gets a clear picture of each character. And somewhere within it all, it is a book about the strength of the women on the island which is the bed rock of island life.

  Thisby is probably an Irish island, but it’s exact location is not specified and it is famous for the Scorpio Races that are run on its main beach. The locals catch the capaill uisce which come ashore during the autumn storms and train them for a period of two weeks in order to race them on the main beach. This is no meant feat since the horses are constantly drawn back to the sea and also drawn to kill.

  The book is narrated from the point of view of two teenagers – Kate (Puck) Connolly and Sean Kendrick. The latter is the winner of the last four races, having a knack, partly magical, with the water horses and a special relationship with his winning horse Corr while the former in many ways is representative of the spirit of the island – isolated yet plucky and  self reliant. Puck and Sean come up against each other when Puck decides to participate in the race to save her house and prevent her elder brother from leaving Thisby.

  It’s amazing how Maggie Stiefvater weaves myths into normal day to day life where they are accepted in a matter of fact way. Hers is not a world on another planet or in another dimension, it is this world but only that some of the stories are real. This is the appeal of her books because who doesn’t want the mundane world to be laced with magic and for the myths to be true. The atmospheric writing manages to draw the reader in despite the deceptively mild pace of the story which meanders through the descriptions of various island inhabitants and their quirks. Ultimately it is the descriptions of the island and its bleakness, offset by the colours of the sea and the horses as well the red of Puck’s hair which stand out vividly. Not to mention Puck herself who is vibrant against the closed and taciturn Sean.

  Like Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series, The Scorpio Races is a book that slowly gets under your skin and weaves a spell. A story to be savoured.

 

The sky is not the limit

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  For the life of us we cannot understand how Brandon Sanderson does it, he manages to consistently churn out book after book without any reduction in size or quality of writing. So, after considerable speculation, we have come to the conclusion that a) either he does magic and has stolen a time turner from Hogwarts or b)has built his own time machine or, c) 3rd option, he is not human and lives in a spaceship which generates words. Is it possible for anyone to keep coming out, year after year with big fat books (no slim novellas for Sanderson), sometimes twice a year? He has at least 3 series running at the same time! Each one distinctly different with considerable amounts of world building which keeps the readers involved. Just keeping track of what is happening in each of the series to avoid confusion in the writing process would surely be a nightmare for mere mortals. But not Sanderson it would seem as each series has a very distinct story line and feel to it. With his new book, Skyward, Brandon Sanderson has diversified from fantasy to science fiction. And wonderfully so.

  Skyward is YA with hints of Ender’s Game but a lot more fun. The protagonist Spensa Nightshade (call sign Spin) is everything you want a protagonist to be. She is spunky with a humongous chip on her shoulder, determined, intelligent, talented, with serious attitude and has stickability under adverse circumstances. She is also loyal, with a never say die attitude and has a fondness for Beowulf and other ancient stories as told by her grandmother. It makes her language rather more interesting when she is constantly talking about ‘smiting’ her enemies and hearing their ‘lamentations’ rising to the skies. If that isn’t engaging enough, Spensa comes across and befriends an abandoned ship with AI(M-Bot) with an attitude to match and a craving to research and categorise mushrooms! How much more random can it get? But it all works so well and the reader is captivated by the characterisations. Even one of us, who is not normally a science fiction reader, couldn’t put the book down.

  The story of Skyward is set far in humanity’s future, without any specific dates being given. Spensa’s world, Detritus, is a planet where a human ship crash landed 80 years ago in the story, escaping from a galactic war between species. The planet is surrounded by a debris field of space junk, mostly old space stations and broken space ships. The humans have built their settlements underground to escape the Krells who attack from beyond the space debris every once in a while. The most coveted job on the planet is that of a starfighter pilot to defend against the Krell attacks. At seventeen those chosen by the academy commence their training and Spensa,  who qualifies, has to struggle to stay in the academy.

  A lot of writers write very grim fantasy or science fiction these days. Dark and violent has become almost unavoidable if one is looking for a gripping story. Skyward manages to steer clear of this while being humorous and gripping at the same time. It’s not a light read but retains the essence of one. Sanderson has proved himself to be one of the few male writers who write women very well. We can’t not read the next book in the series which is out later this year. But despite our trust in Sanderson, there is an element of apprehension about how he will top this one.

Trees, seeds, soil and lab

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  Whoever thought, like us, that chemistry labs are dingy, boring places with strange smells emanating from them, should read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren to get an insight into how passionate scientists can be about their labs. Hope Jahren, is a geochemist and geobiologist with an obsession for trees and plant life. Her memoir, Lab Girl alternates between fascinating fact about trees and personal recollections of what it means to be a woman scientist and professor, the issues of funding for her lab, dealing with students, and her own obsessions. Together with these difficulties she writes also about the joys of science and of the companionship of her lab partner, Bill, which becomes a life long friendship. Each personal chapter alternates with one about trees and that is where Jahren truly waxes lyrical. Her awe for the existence and survival capabilities of trees and their seed really comes through in her writing.

“For trees that live in the snow, winter is a journey. Plants do not travel through space as we do; as a rule they do not move from place to place. Instead they travel through time, enduring one event after the other, and in this sense, winter is a particularly long trip. Trees follow the standard advice given for any extended travel within a rustic setting: pack carefully.”

  The book is a fascinating look into a life obsessed – we can think of no other word. How Jahren and Bill survived without sleep, proper food, limited funding and no security that any more funding would be forthcoming, is mind boggling just to read about let alone the stress of living through it. Jahren is also very matter of fact, in the book, about her bipolar disorder. Though scary at times, at no point is the reader invited to feel any pity. It’s just how it is and the lab activities continues.

  Though she is consumed by her work, Jahren does not come across as someone who knows only science. To us one of the most appealing portions in the book is her use of quotations (from David Copperfield by Dickens) applied to happenings in daily life while working part time at a hospital pharmacy during her undergraduate years. Then there is the very unusual aspect, in today’s consumerist world, of how little meaning material possessions have for Jahren and her colleagues. Unless it is something that finds place or use in their lab, the show no interest or inclination for acquisitions. It is very refreshing as a reader to read about people who are so different from the norm.

  This is a book well worth reading and even those of us who come with a predisposition to like trees will see them in a different way after reading Jahren’s beautiful prose describing their lives, tenacity and capability to exist. All of which is now seriously endangered.

The one library…

 

  The most powerful people in the multiverse are not the dragons that sit at the order end of the spectrum or the elves which are predominant at the chaos end but the librarians that maintain the balance. The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman is set around the Library that straddles the space between the parallel earths and collects rare books from each. There are worlds where Jane Austen or Dickens have written additional books, Shakespeare has written other plays. The Library sends it’s librarians to buy or steal these rare books and store them in the library which somehow maintains the balance between the dimensions.

  Irene is a junior librarian travelling through doors in the Library which lead to different worlds. Her apprentice Kai is a dragon in human form. In the first book she is sent to a Victorian, steampunk version of London to pick up a unique publication of Grimm’s fairy tales which has an additional story not to be found in any other world. She comes across, becomes an ally and then a friend of Peregrin Vale, the greatest private detective in that London who is a live alternate of Sherlock Holmes. Irene comes across the renegade librarian Alberich, fights battles, survives by the skin on her teeth three fourths of the time, trains Kai while trying to deny her attraction to him(dragons being beautiful and all that).

  The second and third books follow pretty much in the same vein. It seems to be the era of elf bashing. We can’t remember having read of any good elves since Lord of the Rings. In this series the elves are chaotic and unabashedly villainous.

 Though we love the premise of the series, the library and it’s warrior like, James Bondish, Indiana Jonesish, book heisting librarians who wield immense power for the protection of the worlds and their humans. Despite Irene being a strong, spunky protagonist the books unfortunately read superficially. Which is why we stopped at book three although there are two more in the series to date. The books, written in the first person and full of adventure, do not manage to completely draw the reader in. As a result the reader never manages to fully identify with Irene, probably because her emotions feel a little shallow and detached.

It’s nice racy read, just don’t expect to be gripped. There are still questions to be answered at the end of book three: exactly how the library controls the worlds, Irene’s parentage, her relationship with Kai and Vale and of course the fate of the villainous Alberich. If any of you are reading beyond book three please let us know what happens as we are moving on to other worlds and other tales.

An Epic Door stopper

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Its long time since anyone has written a solid, big, standalone epic fantasy. Samantha Shannon certainly deserves credit for giving us The Priory of the Orange Tree in one complete package. In this age when most epic fantasy novels come in parts, to sink ones teeth into a big, solid chunk of a book without having to worry about having to wait for the next instalment makes for a very satisfying read. Of course, we feel that this may be a book better suited to the Kindle in order to save the strain on ones wrists and also it is less daunting if the reader is not constantly reminded visually of how much is still left while reading. We understand the contradiction of this since on the one hand we like the chunkiness of the book yet we felt daunted by the size. This is how readers are.

There are dragons and then there are dragons. It would seem that we have inadvertently become stuck in a dragon loop for some time. Every other book we pick up has dragons in it! Not that we are complaining too much as dragons make for good tales (or tails). It could also be that for us if there be dragons, it is reason enough to pick up the book. So, in PotOT the Nameless One is the bad, evil dragon, asleep for a thousand years but about to wake, his minions are already about. There are water dragons in the east who are friendly to humans. Most of the kingdoms follow Virtuedom, a religion based on defeat of the nameless one and the saints who had originally bound him. Into this mix comes comes Ead Duryan appointed secretly to protect Sabran, the Queen of Inys who would become the main target for the Nameless One and his followers because of the legend that it is her bloodline that keeps him bound. Ead is actually from a mysterious and secret order, the Priory of the Orange Tree, which wields magic in a world where it is not permitted. In the east is Tané the counterpoint to Ead, and who is a dragon rider. The book shifts back and forth chiefly between the viewpoints of Ead and Tané but there are also others which at times makes it disorienting for the reader but perhaps it was necessary for the writer to cover all the ground.

None of the characters behaved in expected ways in their morality or orientation which at times is very unsettling for the reader. Every book requires at least that one fixed compass when it comes to the major characters which was lacking in the book. The readers find themselves  unsettled through the hugeness of the book, trying to figure whose shoes they want to be in and hoping for one of the characters to settle down into that relatable person.

The story took some time introduce all the characters but it didn’t drag and like we have already mentioned, it was a satisfying read. We only wish that the ending had not been so hurried. Perhaps it was necessary in order to limit the book to its eight hundred odd pages.

 

Power, politics and practicality

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  The third book in the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden is an action packed, satisfying conclusion to the series. The Winter of the Witch truly brings the witch in the book out in the open with both the political powers as well as the mythical ones looking to her to do what is necessary. And the witch, with true witch like practicality, rises to the challenge.

 Vasya has come into her full powers and also fully accepted them, even going so far as to agreeing to inherit the legacy of Baba Yaga once the threats to Rus from the Tatars are sorted out. In a sense this is much more political and dark book than the others. The violence sits at edges through the story, erupting on centre stage every once in a while. But it is also a book about Vasya accepting her powers and demanding her due for the power she wields for the good of others and for the good of her people, both human and mythical. At one point Vasya very pertinently states that she, as a woman is allowed to “want”.

 Moscow is suffering and reeling from the aftermath of the fire that engulfs it at the end of The Girl in the Tower. Also the Tatars are on the verge of attacking and the Grand Prince of Moscow, Dimitri Ivanovich is trying to rally all the Boyars in Rus to defend it. Konstantin Nikonovich, the priest, Vasya’s old nemesis is back to foment trouble and unable to shake his obsession with Vasya. Morozko, the winter king’s power is waning so he makes a bargain with his brother Medvedev, the chaos force, and sets him free to help Vasya. Konstantin once more falls under the spell of Medvedev and is raising the dead and causing terror in the city. Vasya manages to escape being burnt as a witch and lands up in the land of midnight on the edges of which her great grandmother Baba Yaga rules.

 The book is populated with all the mythical creatures of house, countryside, forest and river who look to Vasya to bring about a balance in all the opposing forces. In essence that is what the book is all about – finding a workable balance between opposing forces, between man and nature, male and female, opposing religious beliefs, chaos and order. This is also a book about how those opposing sides can co exist and even collaborate for the good of all, which surely makes it a tale for today. Through it all runs Vasya, her brother and the Grand Prince’s love for the motherland. There is also a lot of actual history woven into the story – the battle of Kulikovo actually took place between the forces of Rus and the Tatars. Dimitri Ivanovich was the Grand Prince of Moscow who led those forces and the Vasya’s brother Alexander Peresvet was a historical figure, a warrior monk who fought in single combat against the Tatar warrior Chelubey. History, myth and story are all mingled together to bring the trilogy to a beautiful end.

 Arden has gone from strength to strength with this trilogy. We were a little unsure as to how much we liked The Bear and the Nightingale, the second book The Girl in the Tower was definitely better but The Winter of the Witch takes it to another level. A must read as a series.