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. 

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Not quite Verona

  Romeo and Juliet has been an inspiration for many a tale but this duology by Victoria Schwab (The Monsters of Verity) compromising of This Savage Song and Our Dark Duet is a partly dystopian, partly horror, partly fantasy take on the Shakespearean romance. Except of course that there is very little in the way of romance in these books. The two books had come out a few years back but we avoided reading them because they were supposed to be sad. With the kind of stuff one gets to hear on the news these days, who wants more sad? But then it is Victoria Schwab, and we had loved her Darker Shade of Magic series…

  The main protagonists are Kate Harker and August Flynn who live in a divided city called Verity. Twelve years before the start of the story something happened which caused acts of violence to start taking human shape and so the monsters were born. There are three different kinds of monsters, each originating from different grades of violence. August Flynn and Kate Harker end up being friends because they are in the same school but their fathers each rule one half of the city and have different ways of dealing with the monsters.

  On the one hand you have Kate who wants to be more like her father, who, though human is truly evil because he uses the monsters to control people and on the other hand there is August who, despite being one of the rarer kinds of monsters, just wants to play his music, spend time with his cat and be human. So Schwab constantly raises the question in the readers’ minds – is a monster born or made?

  Victoria Schwab combines all the elements of good storytelling to take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions through the two books. The main appeal of her books is not just the world building but all the characters who are so beautifully fleshed out. Even the ones who are monstrous. As a result her fantasy books end up being quite believable and the people identifiable. The best fantasy has the moral questions just hovering in the background and the Monsters of Verity duology manages to make the reader re think preconceptions and terminology.

It’s alive!

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  One wouldn’t have thought that a book about technology and sourdough bread baking could be so appealing! But Sourdough by Robin Sloan is a quirky, funny and immensely readable book about a software engineer and her experiences with the genealogy, constant movement and life in a sourdough starter (of all things); wars, shooting filigrees of light, humming and all.

  The protagonist Lois is from Michigan but upon being picked up by a head hunter takes a job in San Francisco in a typical Silicon Valley tech company. The one line in the book that really struck us was when Lois says – “Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: We are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.” The line encapsulates the entire generation. Like most techies, Lois ends up being exhausted and lonely, with no personal life, in a new city. The company she works for is typical with its obsessed founder and even more obsessed workers who have no time to eat and are drinking gloop out of a packet called ‘slurry’. A hungry Lois discovers the Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, a home delivery service operated illegally by two immigrant brothers and starts ordering dinner from there every night. When the two brothers have to suddenly leave the US, Lois being their number one customer, they leave their traditional sourdough starter in a crock with instructions on how to feed the starter.

  From there starts Lois’s adventures in sourdough baking. Bit by bit her sphere of acquaintances, and then friends, widens. She becomes acquainted not only with the starter and its history via e mails from one of the Clement Street brothers but also with the music of their culture (which the starter likes). The popularity of her baking leads her to discover the entire system of farmers markets in San Francisco, their hierarchy.  and how they operate. She ultimately becomes a part of a new and off beat market based at a former nuclear silo.

  The starter, if you still haven’t guessed it, is magical and more alive than normal sourdough starters. Sloan goes into great detail about microbial cultures and what happens when one starter is fed another starter and the wars waged within the microcosm.

  In its own way the book is a microcosm of a city like San Francisco where tech is paramount but there are still people holding out against it and where food is an obsession. And the techies who abound are a ‘type’. Being in Bangalore we can certainly identify with that.

  A book where the protagonist is a young woman, who learns to bake, some elements of fantasy, some of romance and is about breaking away from your regular life, would normally be sorted as “chick lit”. But when is chick lit not chick lit? – When it has elements of tech ( Lois works on proprioception – getting robotic arms to carry out delicate tasks) and it is written by a man!
The sorting hat would have a tough time with this one.

Divine experiment

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Jo Walton is very good at incorporating other books and their plots into her stories. We found this with her novel Among Others which was a book about books (see our review here). Particularly about science fiction and fantasy books. In The Just City, she has written a story about an experiment based on Plato’s Republic and the writings of the ancient philosophers.

  The Greek Gods are real but they transcend time, so they exist in all times at once. Having seen and done and been aware of everything all at once, one is bound to get bored. Out of boredom comes experimentation. So Athena, in her wisdom,  decides to take an island (Atlantis, about a hundred and fifty years before it sank), fill it with the best literature, art and philosophy of the ages and a number of children, rescued mainly from slavery from different times, to populate it. The children were to have the best of teachers in all disciplines in the most conducive environment  and hopefully turn into ideal citizens and philosopher kings ruling themselves.

  Apollo is dejected and cannot comprehend Daphne’s rejection of him by choosing to turn instead into a Laurel tree. He finds no comfort or understanding from his sister Artemis who is miffed that the moon missions we named after her twin (being the goddess of the moon we cannot really blame her). In order to understand human nature he agrees to Athena’s offer of involving himself in her experiment and agrees to take on the human incarnation of a young boy.

  Throw a bunch of philosophers into the mix – Socrates (spelt Sokrates here), Atticus, Plotinus, Cicero, Boethius, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola and the book has a considerable amount of reasoning and philosophising. Sokrates discussing the socratic dialogues feels almost like a first person account. The way in which Walton writes him, with all the curiosity and irreverence one imagines Sokrates to have had, he comes across as very real. He is also dismissive of Plato and as a consequence of the entire experiment. We found Apollo as a human to be compelling. His amazement at the limitations of a human body and growing admiration for the way in which humans are able to function within their limitations is a revelation even for us humans as most of the time we don’t even realise we are disadvantaged.

  At times the book seems preachy and sermonising, particularly the portions dealing with Ethel/ Maia, the Victorian era girl brought in as a teacher. But the rest is fascinating in the way that different people accept , or don’t, the situation they find themselves in. The girl Simmea is happy in the Just City because she feels she is her ideal self there. Whereas her contemporary Kebes, is resentful, despite escaping slavery, for not having been given a choice in being brought to the island. We only wish that Walton had made more of the differences in the sensibilities of people from different times and their attitude to technology and different ways of living.

  A book to read and take your time and ponder over. Written with humour and affection for the ancient philosophers and some gods (read Apollo).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not at all a nightmare

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  Once there was a city that lost its name when the gods appeared in a metallic angle which crushed parts of the city; its wings preventing sunlight from touching the city for generations. For years the people lived in terror of the blue coloured gods and suffered their atrocities but eventually rose up in rebellion and killed the gods and their godspawn. But unknown to the city, five blue children survived in the now abandoned angel ship, dreaming of affection and proper food. The duology really starts when the godslayer, Eril-Fane, brings a contingent of people from other parts of the world to help the people of Weep (as the city has come to be known) move the angel so that light can once again reach the city and it can finally heal.

  Ever since we read Strange the Dreamer, which we totally loved, its sequel – Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor was, for us, one of the most awaited books of this year. But the problem with expectations is that one is afraid of being let down. Which is why even though the book came out in October and even though we bought it immediately, we were then attacked by a bought of reader’s anxiety and couldn’t bring ourselves to start reading it. What if it didn’t live up to the our expectations? What if we found it boring? What if Strange the Dreamer was a one book wonder? What if the wonderousness of Strange the Dreamer was entirely in our imagination and the sequel failed to live up to it?

  And when we actually started on Muse of Nightmares, it was indeed a slower read and it took us a while to get into the story. It was slow because there was too much of Sarai and Lazlo being beautifully mushy. Maybe Laini Taylor was told that the blooming romance between the two was so beautifully written, she just went on and on with it in this book. Or maybe we are just old and it does not thrill us anymore.

  When the story finally got going it was thrilling and exciting and everything we had expected and more. Taylor introduced two new characters, the sisters  Kora and Nova and their strange world,  there was more about the gods and where they were from, the mystery of the disappearing children and where they went,  the mysterious bird called wraith who was ever present in the earlier book and kept us wondering as to what it’s role was.

  Midway through the book we got very stressed about how the author was going to resolve the godspawn girl Minya’s deep seated hatred for the god slayer and the people of Weep. Laini Taylor however manages to bring the book to a satisfactory conclusion, thankfully without killing off too many people.

  There are also subtle hints to a possible crossover with her earlier Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. So we are off to read the trilogy and we will review it next year.

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.

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.