We need a hero

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All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison is a pastoral tale and starts off beautifully with details of the countryside, hedgerows, wheat fields and hay ricks. Even the title of the book is bucolic. Her descriptions of wildflowers just makes one want to be there. We believe that this is typical of Harrison’s style, although we haven’t read any of her earlier works, all embedded in rural settings brought to life by her writing.

  In All Among the Barley, the protagonist, Edith, is a 14 year old in the early 1930s and living on her parents’ farm. She is more bookish than a person living in such a setting is expected to be. She tends to get into trouble because of  her fondness for books and reading, particularly since she refuses to close a book until she has reached a sentence of seven words exactly. By the time the book starts Edith has left school and claims to have left behind her childhood infatuations and found greater loves like Percy Bysshe Shelley and John from Swallows and Amazons.

  With a protagonist who starts off interesting and relatable, elements of countryside witch craft, rural unrest, pre WWII antisemitism, this could have been an engrossing book but for the fact that it has no hero. There are only a number of potential heroes who build up your expectations but fall flat in the end. All you are left with is the protagonist’s slow decline into confusion and the fall of her heroes.

  Perhaps the fault lies with fact that we have read a number of YA books recently and have come to expect a character who saves the day. We understand that real life does not necessarily provide you with a suitable beginning and ending but then a book is not really real life. For a gripping story to be told within the number of pages provided, it must, we now realise, have that one character who attracts both the sympathy and the admiration of the reader. Even if the book is a tragedy, there has to be a choice of self sacrifice that must be made, like Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). Without giving too much away we feel that Harrison has just left her readers wondering what is happening and why.

  To be read only for the descriptions in the first third of the book. Randomly meandering otherwise.

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Chucking it all up

  There is a standard formula that works – Leave (or be forced to leave) a well paying job in a city and move to a picturesque yet ramshackle house in the country, an overgrown garden, minimal connectivity and locals who can’t understand you and you can’t understand them. Some of them may even be downright unwelcoming.

  Why is it that just getting in a plumber to stop a tap from leaking is such a headache but when somebody writes about their travails about working on making an entire house liveable, it makes for good escapist reading? What makes us classify our own plumbing/electrical concerns as a nuisance whereas the plumbing nightmares of others become  fantasy?

  And while getting the house done if there is also a garden/olive grove/ lavender fields/ vineyard that needs backbreaking work, all the better. There is some inherent desire in human beings to run away and start afresh and do something closer to nature and something that does not turn you into a 9:00am to 12:00am, constantly connected to the online world, zombie. There is obviously an appeal to the real world which cannot be replaced by the internet. Plus such books always have detailed descriptions of the food consumed between setting the house to rights, working on the grounds or trying to be accepted by the locals. Food and drink are, of course, one of the biggest attractions to the reader. Whether commonplace or exotic, it’s always nice to know what is being consumed.

  Books along these lines are written every day and yet there is always a market for more. Each one that is published, continues to sell. A Year In Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun, Extra Virgin, Up with the Larks are all memoirs about getting away. Since the formula works so well there are also series of fiction written along similar lines.

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We recently read Jenny Colgan’s The Little Beach Street Bakery, set in a fishing community on a (sometimes) island off the coast of Cornwall. The protagonist, an outsider renting a falling apart building manages to turn her life around by indulging in her passion of baking bread and making a space for herself. She finds that the community also houses a resident bee keeper and an eccentric millionaire who are also trying to live a ‘different’ life. The book should have been stressful with a broke Polly dealing with the disintegration of her business and long term relationship in a cold flat overlooking a haunted wharf. Instead we found it a relaxing and easy read. The bread always came out well, no matter the conditions, a puffin becomes a pet and the locals eventually become friends.

  Being close to nature, even the ferocity of it, calls to some genetic memory in humans. Perhaps because we were farming, bee keeping, baking, hunting and fishing long before we were Whatsapping, Instagraming, Snapchating,  Tumblering and blogging.

The Muggle Harry

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The fourth book in the Cormoran Strike series, Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling), is a lengthy, involved, murder mystery featuring the London Olympics and the corridors of political power. It equally ridicules the conservative upper classes with their idiotic nicknames (Izzy, Fizzy, Torks and Tinky) and country estates as well as the extreme left wingers finding their identity in rebelling against anything and everything.

  The book has blackmail, murder and quite a bit of character development of the detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant turned business partner Robin. In investigating a murder that may or may not have taken place many years ago, and the blackmail of a government minister, Strike and Robin find themselves  dealing with politicians, their families and their detractors. The two of them, despite the sometimes unsavoury nature of the work and despite difficulties in their personal lives, are people who really love what they do and have a clear sense of right and wrong which makes them instantly appealing to the reader.

  While we feel that the author has from the outset dealt with Robin Ellacott with a lot of affection in the series, it is only in this book that we felt the same affection extended to Cormoran Strike. This changes the tone of the book, making it as much about the protagonists as it is about the mystery. Cormoran Strike, the way he is written in this book is very much a grown up Harry Potter, living in the normal world. Scarred, with a tragic back story, dealing with the aftermaths of a war and cursed with the kind of fame that he doesn’t want, he is a person who has sympathy for people and a desire to do good. Robin Ellacott, with her intelligence, capability and earnestness has, from the first book in the series reminded us of Hermione Granger.

  Rowling is very good at writing about friendships and supportive working relationships between her characters. We wonder whether there is an element over here of atoning for the lack of anything else between Harry and Hermione, which Rowling had once rued, after the Potter series had concluded.

  With plenty of food (not necessarily appetising), drink and detailed descriptions of London during the Olympics, Lethal White is a sprawling, chunky book that one can sink one’s teeth into and be thoroughly entertained. It helps that it was less gruesome than the previous two books in the series. Which bodes well for re readings.

Lost in cultural translation?

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We read a lot of fantasy, set in strange/alternate universes, populated often by non human characters with their own cultural codes. But then that is where world building comes in as fantasy authors help the reader understand the alternate settings. On the other hand realistic writing always has the problem of being written in one particular cultural context and how much of that is relate-able for readers around the world depends on the author. Too much explanation will become boring and not enough can sometimes leave people mystified about certain things in a book which ends up distracting the readers from the main story.

This is what happened to us to some extent with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The book starts off with a horrific event where the protagonist Starr Carter witnesses her friend being unfairly shot by a cop. From that point onward in the story the killing becomes a media circus and a statement on the race relations in the US today.

Starr has an extended supportive family but her experiences affect her relationship with her friends and boyfriend. Things are made more difficult by the fact that she is one of the few black kids at her private school. For a book that has been touted as this generation’s To Kill a Mockingbird, we didn’t find it emotionally gripping in the same way. And this is despite the fact that the unfairness and prejudices depicted in the story should have been truly gut wrenching. Somewhere the narrative loses its intensity and events that should have been more visceral have been dealt with superficially. We understand that this is a YA book but that is no excuse for it not to be more detailed.

The premise of the story itself should have ensured that the book could not be put aside lightly at the end. Unfortunately we managed to finish it only because we kept expecting it to get better – largely due to the rave reviews that it had received.

Starr’s pain and the dual life she leads at home and at school are very identifiable. But when a book is written in the first person the trauma has to come out in the words of the protagonist. Which just does not happen. On the other hand because it is written in the first person the reader loses out a lot by way of deliberations of the grand jury and also enough about what the emotions of the adults in the book are. Using merely Starr’s voice limits the perspective of the story since her thoughts themselves are not deep enough. We would also have preferred the legal angle to be a lot more substantial and not so wishy-washy.

As a result we have decided realistic YA fiction is not for us. We need more meat and substance and bite to our stories. Perhaps the movie will be better.

A Poet’s Way

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  Every once in a while we get reader’s block and find ourselves re reading an old favourite rather than delving through a new book. Travelogues and books about journeys are always an easy read in the circumstances. Unlike a novel which, once you are engrossed, is difficult to put down and then you just end up being cranky for being interrupted, travel books can be read in bits and pieces, even going backwards and forwards. There is a strange sort of delight in sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and reading about the tribulations of someone on the road. We have, recently, once again picked up Simon Armitage‘s Walking Home. After seeing him reading one of his poems at the Jaipur Literature Festival some years back, we decided he was just our kind of poet. Some poets write poetry and do it well but there are very few who can read their own poetry out aloud with such flare and panache so as to enthral even the non poetry readers. And we, who actually enjoy poetry, completely fell for it. There is enough available on YouTube and is well worth a watch.

  As a result, as soon as it was available here, we picked up Armitage’s  Walking Home – an account of his walk on the Pennine Way, towards his home village of Marsden. It is normally the starting point for most people who trek the route from south to north but Armitage felt it might be more motivating to head home rather than moving away. He trekked the entire way without taking any money with him and because of a notice on his website, volunteers organised poetry readings in return for meals and a bed each night. So basically, instead of singing for his supper, he recited his own poetry for his supper. Sort of, as he calls it, a modern day troubadour.

  Like other travel writers, Armitage describes the scenery around him and the difficulties of navigating the Pennine Way, which is one of the most challenging walks, and the people who he met along the way and those who occasionally accompanied him for short stretches.

  We did feel that considering it is a book by a poet, there could have been a few more poems in it but it would seem that lists were more important to him as a walker.  There are lists of places to reach each day, lists of things carried, lists of things he was dreading and not dreading and a list of the types of people met on the road (on the basis of “prejudicial assumptions”). Armitage provides detailed descriptions of walking in mud and the English weather. Which all sounds like fun when read while sitting at home.

  We are planning to read his next book – Walking Away at some point, however, not having read it before we have to wait for our readers’ block to pass.

The Appeal of the Detective

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  In 2017 crime and thriller books outsold general and literary fiction titles in the UK. This could be partly because of television adaptations that bring in more readers. But there is also the theory that in troubled times people turn to murder mysteries which are, notwithstanding the twists and turns in the book, predictable. After all the deductions, the culprit is apprehended and sent off to be punished. At the end there is the guarantee of justice being handed down and a closure for the reader. The predictability also comes from the detective in a series who becomes a familiar character, the inner workings of whose mind the reader comes to understand and appreciate, despite the story itself being different in each book. The reader of a murder mystery will always identify more with the detective than with the victim, purely because none of us want to be victimised but do like to see ourselves as crusaders of justice. This combination of familiarity, admiration and desire to do the right thing probably explains why the persona of the detective quite often ends up overshadowing the will of the author.

  But then, what makes a good fictional detective? What are the characteristics that the readers will feel invested in and proprietorial towards? TS Elliot who was a fan of detective fiction felt that “the detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman. We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him.”

    For writers however, a popular detective can sometimes become a double edged sword. On the one hand the popularity of the character sells more books, but on the other hand , the public’s admiration invests the detective with a real persona and takes the character out of the control of the writer. And some writers just end up feeling haunted by the characters they create and cannot get away from.

  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was possibly the first writer of detective fiction who felt the pinch of his character becoming too popular.  He actually said ‘I weary of his name’ and killed him off in the Adventure of the Final Problem, which appeared in The Strand magazine. People were so upset that more than 20,000 people cancelled their subscription to the magazine. And of course, as we all know, Sherlock Holmes was resurrected and through the ages has had many avatars on film and TV screens. But no one remembers Doyle’s other works which he felt Sherlock Holmes distracted him from.

  Then there was Agatha Christie, her detective Hercule Poirot has made as many appearances on screen if not more than Holmes. But the author once described him as a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego centric little creep’! As admirers of Hercule Poirot we feel offended for him. Christie, after having created him, felt that he limited her work. She very much wanted to get rid of him except her publishers would not let her because his popularity sold books. Finally in 1975, one year before Christie’s death, she published Curtain, the last Poirot novel, in which he dies. He is the only fictional character to have received a front page obituary in the New York Times. If anyone knows if the author herself received the same honour a year later, please let us know.

  Although  Dorothy L Sayers did not dislike her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, she stopped writing detective novels after thirteen books as she felt she was done with him. She instead wrote extensively for radio and stage and even carried out a scholarly translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy into English. But she is still known in the public’s mind primarily as the creator of Peter Wimsey. And as with all of them, the books are known by the detective’s name.

  But as always, the grass is greener on the other side. There have also been popular authors who switch genres and start writing detective fiction/murder mysteries and would probably be very happy to have their detective become more famous and known independent of the author’s persona. Figure that one out for yourselves.

Intrigue and faeries

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A brutal faerie court, a human girl and her twin sister brought up by a ruthless faerie general who lives by his own set of morals, an elder, half faerie sister who wants to live in the human world while the human girls want to be accepted in faerie. Holly Black‘s The Cruel Prince (Book 1 in the Folk of the Air trilogy) has intrigue, politics, faeries of all colours and varieties and the High Court of Faerie. Though the other courts, the Seelie, Unseelie and the court of the Alderking, also make an appearance. There is also the eponymous cruel prince. But then there are three of them in the High court and each one a contender for the title.

Despite the story being about faerie, fantasy writers, Black included it would seem, cannot get away from the school setting (or Hogwarts hangover) with the different kids, in this case the human Jude and her sister Taryn, being reviled and set upon by the elite groups. Prince Cardan (Draco Malfoy?) and his cronies spend their time targeting and playing vicious tricks on Jude and her sister even though the two human girls try to maintain a low profile. Thankfully this typical high school scenario does not take up too much of the book which really picks up in the second half. The book is essentially a bildungsroman story charting Jude’s growth from a girl intensely aware of her fragility and mortality at the court of immortals. It is about her desperate need to gain power by being appointed as a knight in order to feel safe but instead becoming a spy and slowly evolving into someone who feels the need to protect not just herself but also the boundaries of the human world.

  There is violence which Jude experiences at times but deals with it in a matter of fact way, similar to the way in which she slowly accustoms herself to faerie poison by imbibing small quantities of it. Incongruously, no real violence comes her way from the one character who has been her antagonist from the beginning of the book.

  The Cruel Prince is the second book of Holly Black’s that we have read recently. Having enjoyed The Darkest Part of the Forest(see our review here), we had high expectations of this one and we were not disappointed. Black likes to write about young girls who want to be knights, which must be empowering for young girls reading her books. But at the same time her characters are not black and white and no one is either really good or encapsulating all knightly virtues. They are just doing what is expedient. Even Jude’s human ethics do not stop her from lying, deceiving and killing when necessary.  Ultimately The Cruel Prince is a book about political power and  gaining strength at court by whatever means possible. The ending has enough in it to make the reader await the next book in the series eagerly. Unfortunately The Wicked King is out only next year.