The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

June 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie is a mystery set in a 1950 British village. However, the mystery, while interesting, soon fades into the background.

You see, very soon—like two pages into the story soon—Flavia de Luce, the chemistry-loving eleven year-old heroine of the story, grabs hold of your attention, giving it a good tug or two along the way to make sure you haven’t strayed. Off she saunters, dragging you along with her as she conducts various experiments, one of which is to confirm the effects of mixing poison ivy with lipstick (the result is “raw red” lips and the reaction time is about 96 hours—in case you were wondering).

She is the one who keeps her wits about when Colonel de Luce, father to Flavia and her two sisters, is taken into custody as a murder suspect while “The Weird Sisters (one of whom will very soon have “raw red” lips ) were still going at it in the drawing room, their voices rising and falling between notes of anger and grief.”

Lest I make Flavia sound twee or overtly quirky, I should mention that while she is really very smart, her mother whom she calls “Harriet” died when she was a baby, her sisters are at constant war with her, and her father is lost in his own world of stamps and philately.

Then again, here is Miss Flavia, in her own words, as she comes upon a body that has just exhaled its last breath into her face:

I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.

Apart from Flavia, I really enjoyed the whole atmosphere of the story. The setting lends itself to a quiet pace—in keeping with the fact that our detective is a eleven year old heroine whose only mode of pacing about is a rusty old bicycle called Gladys—while still managing to pack quite a bit of action within its locale. I liked the bucolic descriptions and the accompanying eccentric characters (I’m hoping for a story featuring the haroo-bellowing Maximilian Brock).

The mystery itself isn’t exactly crackerjack but it doesn’t really matter. In other words, Alan Bradley could have written in any genre he wanted—a fantasy, a steampunk, a romance (ha! I wonder what a romance featuring Flavia de Luce would look like!) or literay fiction. It would have worked so long as it featured Flavia de Luce. I would be very interested in finding out which came first in this case—the character or the story.

A Fantasy, A Regency, and A Historical or Madames Elliott & Heyer and Monsieur Lawrence Norfolk

June 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yes people I’ve been reading. So without further ado—does anyone have a replacement for this phrase? Hosts introducing moderators, and moderators introducing the panel “without further ado” left, right and center in the World Science Festival has left me feeling a bit exhausted with this phrase—here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been upto reading-wise.

The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott

Oh how MUCH I love this one! It’s big, it’s complex, it’s meaty, it features two kick-ass heroines whose relationship forms the heart of the series and it also explores issues of free will.

I loved the romance that was explored in the series—I love how it’s allowed to simmer so that when things really come to a head between the two protagonists it feels so authentic, like a natural-next step for its two main leads. Then there’s the theme of ownership that was woven all the way through to the end of the story (with a plot twist that I hadn’t foreseen and that made me realize how I really SHOULD NOT jump to conclusions about others’ actions because I really DO NOT know the heart of their stories). I also really liked how one of the two main female characters was so kick-ass happy WITHOUT a strong, big hero in the offing. And I really liked how the ambiguous note that the series ends on politically reflects the one step forward, two steps backwards nature of sustainable, long-term changes in the real world (feudalism/capitalism/democracy/benevolent dictatorship and their ramifications are all discussed through the length of the story arc). And there’s a parallel Caribbean too! Oh just go get your hands on Cold Magic, the first in the series!

On Fantasy

So I went to the Fantasy panel with Deborah Harkness and Lev Grossman at BookCon on May 31. The thing that I like about both these authors is that their works straddle the real and the fantastical. Their magic skids along the edges of the world as we know it. And that apparently is, exactly the reason, why they write the sort of books that they do (rather than straight out fantasies like George R. Martin or Brandon Sanderson).

Grossman said that to him it’s not about the magic. He’s more interested in exploring how you live your life, and what you do with it, when you could conceivably have everything that you want at your finger-tips. For Deborah Harkness, magic is just another skill like being innately smart at studies or good at singing. In each case, how you feel about yourself as a person and your sense of self-worth is not a function of the skill you posses but more about what you think of and feel about yourself.

It was interesting to see some of my own thoughts about fantasy being reflected back to me by these two authors whose books I’ve enjoyed so much!

Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep

I really really enjoyed Black Sheep. I am NOT a fan of the rake to perfect husband trope and didn’t like Venetia, and These Old Shades, two other Heyer romances featuring a rake as a hero. The other two felt over-the-top to me whereas Black Sheep hit the sweet spot with both Miles and Abigail. This time around it also struck me that dialogue is Heyer’s tool of choice for fleshing out her characters. There are pages and pages of conversation between her characters with only a few words spared for the setting or descriptions of any sort.

I think that along with The Unknown Ajax Black Sheep has become one of my favourite Heyers. And now that I think of it both Miles and Hugh Daracott (the hero of The Unknown Ajax) are cut out of the same cloth.

Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast

If you love food and words, go grab the book! The setting is mid-17th century England. The plot is okayish. Indeed, the use of Christian zealot-ism as an integral part of the storyline is tedious. The characters are also nothing spectacular but they serve the purpose—the purpose being to devour the food–words that are dished up through the course of the story! The FOOD! Oh my! The description of the implements of cooking, the depth and breadth of the spices, the process of the ingredients being mixed up to serve utterly sumptuous feasts, the “recipe” that introduces each chapter, ALL of it had me salivating for more! The words are ornate, at times archaic (and I was really glad that I read this one on my iPad which made looking up the meaning easy), but always luxurious, especially the ones that have anything at all to do with food. The scenes that do feature food (and thankfully, there are a LOT of them as this is a story about a 17th century cook) are truly evocative. If you love cooking or eating, or perhaps enjoy both like me, then this is a book that you shouldn’t miss out on!

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin — DNF (for now)

May 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Sigh! I tried. This tor.com review perhaps captures best the ambiguity that I feel regarding this book. It has also made me decide to give Winter’s Tale, if not another go, then to at least to pick up from where I left after a couple of years:

Here is how the Beverly/Penn romance actually progresses:

Peter breaks into their house and watches Beverly take a bath.
Peter gets a quick approval from the Penn patriarch.
Beverly and Peter go to a dance.
Beverly dies offscreen.
You put the book down and go do something constructive.

There’s still 3/4ths of Winter’s Tale to go after this and author Mark Helprin isn’t done throwing page-long descriptions of snow drifts at you, so he starts over and suddenly we are following a single mother, an industrial heir, and a couple other people who I kept forgetting the purpose of, about a century later as the year 2000 approaches.

. . .

To honor the 500th straight description of winter, Winter’s Tale begins assembling the idea that every thread that has been precipitously dropped so far will come back into play, kicking off a chain reaction that will result in this near-magical NYC being transmuted into a literal heaven on Earth.

Helprin is a charismatic enough writer to pull this kind of metaphysical twist off. I joke that there are about 500 descriptions of winter in this book, and there are, but those descriptions are rich, varied, evocative descriptions nonetheless. Helprin’s visuals glimmer boundlessly and he’s possibly one of the few writers living whom you could trust to describe Heaven arriving on Earth.

(In case you’re wondering I finished about 2/3rd of the book. The problem is this—I can read this book only in spurts. And when I am in the middle of taking a break, I’m not that eager to return to it.)

Click for my earlier reactions.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

May 5, 2014 § 2 Comments

No, I haven’t been swallowed whole by the vagaries of the internetz. Yes, I’ve also been reading all this while. But I’m not up for long and detailed reviews so what I’ll do is post snippets on what I’ve read in the last two months through the next couple of days or so. Here’s the first one.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell reads exactly like what it purports to be—a history of magic in early 19th century Britain. It doesn’t really have a very plot-like beginning, middle and ending. There is, of course, a coherent story but one is left with the sense of there not being really a point to any of it till one realizes that well, this is, as the author would like us to have, a narrative of the history of magic.

As  behooves a narrative about history, the book has hundreds of footnotes as contextual explanations. The footnotes expand on and give the backstories of the persons and events that are referred to in the main tale. These footnotes are stories unto themselves and in my opinion one of the best features of the book. The two main characters are sketched and drawn out really well. I didn’t like Mr. Norell initially—exactly, I think, as Miss Clarke intended.

However, this is a LONG book and normally, I’m one to enjoy excessive details and don’t require a reason for all the minutiae. But Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a bit much for me—I’m glad I made it through to the end of the book but I certainly did not see what the fuss (about this book) was all about!

Girl of Fire and Thorns Trilogy by Rae Carson

February 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

At first I wasn’t going to say anything. But the more I think about it the more I realize that while I did not not like Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy I didn’t like it either. And I’m interested in thinking through why it didn’t work for me.

The first book was the best. The heroine’s development feels true and in commensuration with the challenges she faces. In books 2 and 3 by contrast, some of the major “battle” scenes are too tame—they lack the scope of imagination that one comes to expect after reading the first book in the trilogy. Not only that but also the heroine’s triumph in those scenes feels too contrived, and quick. Overall those scenes, that one would expect would help in the development and the rounding out of the heroine, did not register with me as events of great import. As a consequence Elisa (the heroine) never felt like a fully fleshed out character.

[SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL] At the end of the third book Elisa’s godstone rolls off her navel and this was such an obvious attempt to make her view all her earlier actions as things she did of her own volition, to help bolster her self-confidence, that I felt disappointed. I wish Miss Carson would have come up with other ways of achieving this. Moreover, the rolling off raised questions about the earlier plot resolutions that Miss Carson had affected and that featured the godstone heavily.

Also, the romance arc in the 2nd and 3rd books is irritating. Neither the heroine nor her love interest were developed well enough for me to be emotionally vested in their relationship. I will give Miss Carson full marks for effort for her first trilogy but I’d suggest that you wait for her later books. In the meanwhile, I would rather recommend Guy Gavirel Kay, another author whose stories failed to engage me emotionally but an author whose characters and plots have a satisfying depth to them.

Shakespeare’s Secret or A Scene That Came To Me

February 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

“Hard at work, Master Will?”

The careful dot that Will was placing over ‘i’ turned into a glop of ink.

“Master Kit.” Squaring his shoulders, he turned around. “And how are you this fine day?”

“Gloriously well. It has been a few weeks and my apartments have not been disturbed.”

“Congratulations.”

“What are you up to Will?”

“Why what do you mean, Master Kit?”

The puckered brows and the two steps that Kit took towards Will were enough for Will’s hands to shoot forward out in a plea to stop.

“I know things have not been well between the two of us in the past but is it not possible to set aside our differences?”

A glare was all the response that Will received before Kit stormed out.

Heaving a sigh at Kit’s departure Will focused on getting his racing heart under control. An unholy gleam came into his eyes. Oh he would stay well away from Master Kit’s apartments. He no longer needed a nudge of help or inspiration as he had liked to call it. Not now.

He read the words he had put to paper just a moment ago. The curve of the letters on the paper was more pronounced than the curve on the worn-out surface. He was still awed at his stroke of good fortune. He was a dramatist, not a scrivener but he thanked his stars for not refusing the last minute engagement that had come his way four weeks ago.

Whistling the tune that he and his friends had been singing the night before, Will dipped his quill into the ink, straightened the sheet of paper, and settled down to transcribe. As usual, the words broke through the skin of the wood and arranged themselves in a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables, a pattern that Will had come to recognize only that morning.

A desk, even a moody one, that believed its purpose was to compose verses and tell stories was indeed a handy object to come by.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: A Review

February 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have things I need to say. So, listen up!

The Namesake is probably one of the very few novels in the recent years to have struck home so closely. And not just because of its exploration of the immigrant experience (which is what everybody talks about. also, I’m a recent expatriate).

To me, the central tension in The Namesake arises from Nikhil’s ideas about who he is being at odds with his parents’ conception of who he is or rather who he should be. While the immigrant experience serves to throw this contrast in a sharper relief, the tension that arises from the desire to forge your own identity amid the burden of the expectations of your parents and the very milieu into which you are born, is true for any parent-child relationship, immigrant experience or not. It’s especially true for generations of Indians and perhaps for successive generations of other Eastern cultures as well.

I like the way Miss Lahiri treats the issue of identity. That one cannot gain a modicum of peace by outright rejection of one’s roots seems self-evident. And through the course of the story, in his own slow and roundabout way, this is the realization that Nikhil aka Gogol reaches as well. His journey is bookended by his two acts—the rejection of the name his father endows him with in the beginning of the story; and the slinking to a quiet corner in the middle of a party to read the book by “the man who gave [him] his name,” Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, 20 years after his father gave him the book, towards the end.

I cannot wrap-up this section without a quote by Edwidge Danticat that I came across recently:

[t]he idea of this great anguish of living between two worlds has diminished somewhat for many immigrant people, artists and non-artists alike. Not that there is not some uneasiness, but it is no longer the single most urgent anxiety of every immigrant’s life. And honestly, maybe it never was—except, perhaps, in literature.

I don’t think that the last sentence is entirely true but I do think that The Namesake might be a story about a certain generations’s immigrant experience. Globalization’s incessant march forward has meant, if not a narrowing, then certainly a bridging between any two worlds.

Now, on to the writing, that is completely un-showy and yet also exquisite. Here’s the thing that to me is exquisite: each word in the story has something to say; each word in the story builds on the one that precedes it till one is left with the impression that each word can stake a claim to its place in the sentence; nay, not just the sentence but also to the story that it is helping to reveal word by word. For example, here’s how Lahiri describes the act of adding on one’s fingers:

The tip of her thumb strikes each rung of the brown ladders etched onto the back of her fingers, then stops at the middle of the third.

There’s a sparse beauty to the detailed description of counting on one’s finger, isn’t there? The prose is just bursting with such details. Details that my description-leery husband didn’t actually skip through (he read the book too):

She stood behind her father as he’d drawn it, watching as he crouched over his easel, a cigarette dangling from his lips, his shoulders wrapped in a black Kashmiri shawl.

I just LOVE the way she uses all these details to give a sense of the character to the reader! (I’m sure other novelists do it too but for some reason I never noticed it till Lahiri).

The Namesake has no specific plot per se. Some folks might also call it a bit sad (the story does tug at one’s heartstrings and also made me cry at two places but the overall tone is one of hope and optimism). It sags a teensy-weensy bit in the center. BUT I loved it. And if any thing that I’ve written snags your interest, I would urge you to check it out.

The Namesake has also whetted my appetite to try out Lahiri’s most recent novel, The Lowlands. Hopefully, there will be more to it than just another version of the immigrant experience!

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