The appeal of grumpiness

a man called OveA book that apparently began with a blog about the writer’s pet peeves was then turned into a surprisingly successful novel about a cantankerous old man whose attempts to commit suicide are constantly being interrupted by his neighbours. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, is about the transformation that can be brought about by social interactions.

Although it would be easy to attribute all the peeves that Ove has in the book – with the younger generation, the local council, people working in IT, hospitals, parking lots, foreign brands of cars etc.- to normal old age behaviour, we realised that we identified with most of Ove’s complaints and obviously so does the author who is so much younger than us. Which is a relief because it just goes to prove that one is allowed to be cranky at any age. Particularly when it comes to the opinions about IT professionals! Leaving all that aside, the gradual change of a reclusive and curmudgeonly man through forced association and socialising with those much younger than him including his adoption by a stray cat, is not very new and distinctly Silas Marnerish. But the book is touching and humorous despite the underlying theme of loneliness and despair.

As with the earlier book of Fredrick Backman that we had reviewed (My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises) A Man Called Ove is translated from the Swedish. But if, as they say, something is always lost in translation we can only wonder at how well the original must read. 

The book is incredibly funny and readable despite being totally politically incorrect. Or perhaps because of it, since political incorrectness is now fashionable across the world. ‘Covefe’? 

Magically Strung Out

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Miracles do happen. Authors do manage to complete a series that they set out to write, without making their readers wait for inordinate lengths of time. V E Schwab‘s, A Conjuring of Light, the third and final book in her Shades of Magic trilogy is one of those rare series concluding books. When we thought about it, we realised that out of all the major, new fantasy series we have started to read in the last decade, or so, this is probably the only one that has actually finished. Just for that V E Schwab deserves to be applauded.

The final book would have been a door stopper had we bought the physical book. As it was, while reading the ebook we didn’t even realise, till we were half way through, that the book didn’t seem to be anywhere near an end. That in itself is an indication of the pace of writing which kept us gripped throughout.

The trilogy is set in parallels worlds with different levels of magic. The only thing they have in common is the city of London which exists on each one of them. People are not supposed to travel between worlds, except the Antari, the rare breed of higher magician born on these worlds. The barrier between the worlds keeps out the poisonous magic from Black London which had been overrun and corrupted by inordinate use of that magic. But, as is the nature of evil, it always manages to find a way of getting out. On the face of it the series abounds with the tropes of fantasy: the magicians drunk on power, the maniacal Rulers as compared with the good King and Queen, the spoilt and wild prince, the dashing pirates, et all. But Schwab’s style of writing provides a lot more. It is not just the descriptions of the various worlds and the characters but also their relationships with each other which are explored. All the relationships, even the friendly ones, are complicated, not just with suspicion but sometimes with the desire to kill. The good are constantly struggling with the temptations of power and their own strengths, and things can go wrong very quickly and very easily where magic is involved.

This book, like the second one in the series, is set largely in the world of Red London where magic abounds. It begins where book two ended – right in the middle of the action. Interestingly enough Schwab intersperses the story of evil magic which now infests Red London with the back story of Holland the Antari from the colourless and vicious White London. While the earlier books had focused more on Kell, the Red London Antari and Lila the thief from Grey London who becomes a pirate, this one deals with the nature of Holland, causing the reader to sympathise with a character who, until now, was more of a villain.

The book has elaborate descriptions and spectacular imagery- what with castles that appear magically in the air, a ship that is a floating market of all varieties of magical contraband and the megalomaniacal personification of magic itself. It is a satisfying conclusion to the series but with perhaps more violence than we were comfortable with; though fairly tame in comparison to the Game of Thrones. V E Schwab does not seem to be particularly partial to any of her main characters and makes them all suffer terribly and equally but perhaps we detected a slight preference for the Pirate captain, Alucard Emery. Or maybe that’s just us. Although the story ties in nicely from the earlier books in the series and many of the questions are answered, there are enough lose ends left for a either a sequel or a prequel. Although we hope Schwab avoids the temptation of either. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.

 

Found in translation

my-grandmother-sends-her-regardsSweden is in the news. So not surprisingly, being readers, our conversation soon veered from supposed attacks, to horses rescued from wells, to an English translation of a Swedish book we had read recently. Fredrik  BackmansMy Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises‘ (American title ‘My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She Is Sorry’) translated by Henning Koch, was delightful, quirky, poignant, full of humour and throughly enjoyable. 

Seven year old Elsa is precocious to the hilt and  her Grandmother is her superhero because to her ‘a grandmother is both a sword and a shield’. Her school and her mother think Elsa needs to learn to ‘fit in’ but her grandmother knows that she is perfect and introduces her to an entire land of the imagination where currency is not coins but good stories. Elsa and her grandmother are not just inhabitants of this land together but friends in real life. When her grandmother dies she entrusts Elsa with the task of delivering a series of letters, personally, to various people that takes her on a journey of discovery. 

PS: Often stories get lost in translation.No matter how good the translation is, it is not possible to bring out the nuances of one language in another. But strangely we didn’t even realise that this was a translation. 

LL: I think I was initially too absorbed by the craziness of the grandmother who fires paintballs from her balcony and breaks into the zoo in the middle of the night and assaults beleaguered police officers with animal poop. 

PS: Any child who has read ‘superior literature’ would want a Grandmother who can argue the merits of Spider-Man vis a vis Harry Potter. 

LL: The book is full of blurring of lines between being a child and being an adult, reality and fantasy, goodness and evil and death and life and all of this somehow combines to make a story that sharpens the focus on life. 

This is a book about accepting people and their eccentricities. And about how the circumstances of life can effect people differently: “Because not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.” It is also about finding unlikely companionship in a journey dealing with loss. Ultimately we were a little envious that Fredrik  Backman, being so young (in his early thirties when he wrote this book), can write so insightfully.

Rising to Expectations

waters-of-eternal-youthDonna Leon’s last few books were disappointingly lackluster and almost felt like they had not been written by her. So it was with great trepidation that we approached The Waters of Eternal Youth, The 25th Guido Brunetti Book, wondering whether we should read it at all. But we are fans and as such we always live in hope as far as our favourite writers are concerned. And this time the hope was justified. Leon seems to be back in full form, almost. Brunetti, his family and colleagues seemed themselves again and of course Venice, with its beauty and problems and food, which largely accounts for the appeal of the books, was ever present. 

Brunetti, Leon’s  food, book and family loving Commissario  of Police has been asked by his mother-in-law’s friend to look into a possible crime committed against her granddaughter fifteen years ago. The girl had fallen into a canal and remained underwater long enough for her brain to be damaged. But her grandmother was convinced that she had been pushed because being an aqua-phobic she would not have voluntarily walked close enough to the water to have fallen in accidentally. Typically, while carrying out the investigation Brunetti’s interactions with those around him, their discussions on life in Venice and the problems faced by the city provide the main focus of the book.

The reader also gets to see Brunetti physically ageing in this book and its not just a matter of his children getting older. He now feels the need to stop at the second landing, while climbing up to his flat, to catch his breath. He needs his reading glasses and is less sure of his footing on a wet street. These little personal insights, not to mention his pleasure in the Paccheri Con Tonno his wife serves him for dinner, make him, as always, a character the reader can easily identify with. Moreover there is the aspect of Brunetti’s moral compass, which, since Donna Leon is back in form, is evident that much more. In a cynical world, it is good to see humanity, at least within the pages of a book.

Brunetti’s colleague, Claudia Griffoni, also has a prominent role in the investigation, with her place in the Questura having developed over the last few books. Her relationship with Brunetti serves to bring a female point of view to the police work ( beyond that of the slightly frightening perfection of Signorina Elettra).

Only a woman while investigating a crime could with such assurance  reason that women don’t use knives to kill and the proof of this lies in the kitchen. 

“The knives are kept in the kitchen, and their husbands pass through there every day, countless times, yet very few of them get stabbed. That’s because women don’t use knives and they don’t stab people.”

We were also interested to learn that Italy has a statute of limitations, even for serious crimes. And that the period continue to run during the course of the trial. So if the trial takes too long and the conviction does not happen within the ten year period from the date of the crime, the accused can walk away free. All the more reason to procrastinate, one would think. Strange are the ways of criminal procedure. 

The Waters of Eternal Youth is a typical Donna Leon mystery in which the mystery is more a backdrop for the development and journey of it’s dramatis personae. As such you forget to look for the red herrings and loopholes in the plot and focus instead on the hard moral questions asked by the characters. 

Reading Royally

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What would happen if the Queen became a serious reader? She is, after all, known to have many interests – horses, dogs, hats etc. But somehow the public does not know if she reads and what she reads. Unlike certain Heads of States (more precisely Barrack Obama) who put out their Christmas reading lists and Summer reading lists, the Queen does no such thing. So Alan Bennett‘s delightful little book ‘The Uncommon Reader’ is an imagined account of the Queen discovering books.

We very much enjoyed chancing upon this hilarious and sometimes touching story of a new reader, immersed in the books she has discovered. As readers we can understand, when the Queen claims a ‘slight cold’ that keeps her in bed, all because she is in the midst of a good book. As also the desire to shut out the rest of the world and her resentment at the call of duty as they interfere with finishing the book in hand. All readers are vaguely aware that this shutting out of the world causes  considerable irritation in the people around us who want to make demands on our time. But that is of course their problem. It is not then surprising that the reader can sympathise very much with the Queen when the irritation actually manifests itself in the insidious ways in which her household and equerries try to separate her from her books.

In a way some of the situations in the book are very similar to the Yes Minister series where the bureaucrats’ require those under their purview to conform and not go off and do their own thing without permission. Similarly, the Queen while attending functions, is not supposed  to veer away from the prescribed formula of asking her subjects where they have travelled from and how long it took them to get there. Instead she stumps people by asking them what they are reading! And surprisingly, no one seemed to have an answer. Apparently nobody reads.

The book has many insights into what readers feel about books and reading ‘A book did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic.’  and ‘Books are wonderful aren’t they? At the risk of sounding like a piece of steak,’ she said, ‘they tenderise one.’

As always, it’s nice to read books about books and the reading experience. And one always identifies with the obstacles faced by readers in their pursuit of books, no matter where they come from. Alan Bennett’s novella is quirky and whimsical and makes the Queen sound very human, particularly when she has a book open on her lap, while seated in her carriage, and just looks up once in a while to wave to the people lining the road. Somewhat like a child who is ostensibly studying but actually reading Harry Potter behind the cover of a school text book.

 

And so it creeps…

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The fourth book in the Lockwood & Co. series is weird and wonderful – magical, swashbuckling, nail biting, humourous and on the edge of the seat terrifying. All at the same time. If you ever wondered if it is possible to be scared out of your wits by a story and yet unable to put the book down, then this series is it.

The ‘Problem’ continues and is expanding. The ghosts and shades and lurkers and poltergeist are out in full force. Only the kids can see them and are employed by the ghost hunting agencies to destroy these spirit manifestations and prevent people from getting ‘ghost touched’ and dying.

Lockwood & Co, the smallest agency in London, lost Lucy, one of its agents, when she decided to quit at the end of book 3. Lucy starts off book 4 as a freelance operative. She hunts ghost in a kind of warped partnership with a talking skull in a jar which only she can hear. And though he is a major irritant for Lucy, his wise crack comments, constant threats and encouragement to Lucy to kill off various people, makes him a wonderfully interesting character. Understandably, when the jar is stolen, Lucy turns to Lockwook & Co for help, thus recreating the atmosphere of the series and bringing into play the interpersonal relations and tensions within the agency. Not to mention the food!  At one point Lucy, after being attacked, makes her way to 24, Portland Row, the Agency/house/Headquarters of Lockwood & Co and is found by Lockwood in the middle of the night, dripping blood on the doorstep. Once Lockwood and George, erring on the side of caution, liberally  bandage her up, they promptly set about making waffles! It is partly to comfort Lucy and partly because that is what they do – eat doughnuts and waffles in the middle of the night, drink tea and banish ghosts. The food is decidedly unhealthy and therefore that much more interesting. In this book, other than the usual hauntings, the team has to deal with and face blackmarketiers, whole haunted villages, and threats from the owners of the two biggest agencies.

Spoiler Alert!

What a shocker about Penelope Fittes, the owner of the huge Fittes Agency! We were left wondering if the activates of the founders of the Fittes and Rotwell Agencies had actually caused the Problem. We presume book 5 (apparently the last in the series) will be about Lockwood & Co solving the mystery behind the Problem. The Creeping Shadow ended leaving the reader with lots of questions, which we presume will all be answered in the next book. In the meantime, Lucy is back in the Agency and reunited with the skull.

The book was funny and scary in equal measures and unputdownable. Read in bed with a huge mug of tea and preferably before dark, unless you are very brave.

Recreating the Past

 

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Cleopatra is one of the most famous Queens in history. And though she was a fairly mixed up person and a very complex personality, she did seem to rise above all the criticism. One doesn’t think of her as anything other than QUEEN (Not to mention the  ‘What a nose!’ courtesy Asterix comics). But for most of us the knowledge of ancient Egyptian history ends with her death and the conquest of Egypt by Rome. What surprised us when we read Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter was the fact that she had a daughter. In fact Cleopatra had three children with Mark Anthony, other than Caesarion who was Julius Caesar’s son. We suppose history doesn’t talk much about the conquered. Kleopatra Selene, her twin brother Alexander and the youngest sibling, Ptolomy were all captured and sent to Rome to live with Mark Anthony’s first wife who also happened to be the sister of Octavian (Caesar Augustus), and publicly displayed as spoils of war.

Written in the first person, the book takes the reader through all the emotions felt by Selene, of watching her parents die, being taken prisoner, her younger brother’s death on the way to Rome, the subsequent death of her twin after some years and life in a city which was very alien to her despite the fact that her father was Roman. Though her day to day existence was comfortable it was also very uncertain. Selene was at all times aware that she and her twin were alive only at the sufferance of Octavian and throughout the book her longing to return to Egypt is an underlying theme. What is interesting are the comparisons Selene makes between the cultured sophistication of Egypt with its influence of Greek civilisation and what she sees as the barbarism of Rome.

Selene,  the only surviving member of the Ptolomy dynasty, went on to become Queen of  Numidia and Mauretania, but she is not a towering historical figure like her mother. Michelle Moran however has captured this little known story and recreated it. We found the style of the book effortlessly readable and although Selene is very young at the start, her emotions, reactions and understanding of events are that of a much older person giving the reader an insight into those times. If one is in the mood for historical fiction, this is a book we would recommend as an interesting read.