August 16, 2014 § 2 Comments
I was crying by the end of Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.” The titular lady astronaut of the story, Elma, is an aging 63-year old who has to make a heartrending decision. The story is the end note of a love song as Elma’s husband, Nathaniel, is at death’s door with a body that is deteriorating rapidly.
Elma’s and Nathaniel’s lives are intersected by Dorothy’s, a girl in whose life Elma played a small but crucial role years ago. Things come a full circle as now Dorothy plays a crucial role in the couple’s life as they near the end of their journey through space-time. This circling back, of the first paragraph and the last, was poignant and unexpected.
Like with the last short story that I talked about, I love how this one too really is an exploration of what it means to be human, set against the background of stars and space and planets. You can go read it for free at Tor.com. And this one too has been nominated for a Hugo.
After reading this short story I just have to ask—what in the heck’s name are the Glamourist Histories all about, Miss Kowal? I did not like the first one, and stopped reading the second one mid-way through the fifth chapter. Those books are just bland. There’s absolutely nothing there to engage my mind or my heart. On the other hand, “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” crackles from the first paragraph to the last. It’s heart-breaking and heart-soaring. And has made me want to go hunt up more of Miss Kowal’s science-fiction.
August 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is certainly epic in feel—gods, mortals who are playthings of gods and gods who are playthings of mortals, an all powerful ruler, a 19-year old heroine who has to quickly learn to fall right on her feet as she is thrust in the heart of a family that is power-hungry and vindictive, and her own. (It’s her mother’s side of the family whom she will be meeting for the first time).
Yet, for all the epic-ness, I was left distinctly uncharmed. After thinking about it I have come to the conclusion that the book was just not to my taste. Like rich, dark, steaming hot chocolate isn’t to my husband’s. (which works out remarkably well for me each time. Ha!) A part of this is because of the petulant gods who have brought the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms into existence. We’re told that the mortals were fashioned in the image of Gods but to me it felt the other way round. Nothing wrong about it, of course, but like I said just something not to my taste.
Then there’s the universe-shattering love between our heroine and one of the said Gods. Our heroine has hots for the god even though having sex with him could very well end her mortal life. Incredulous but ok, whatever floats your boat. What I had much more trouble swallowing was the romance that springs up fully formed pretty much right from the start—one look at each other and God and Heroine are struggling to not give in to their feelings for each other.
The other really jarring part was the back-and-forth switch between our heroine’s reminiscing and the present tense conversation? that she has with her past-self?, a god?, her-self?, uh, what? Do you feel confused? Good. I did too. It becomes clear in the end as to what’s going on, and perhaps the confusion was precisely what I was supposed to feel through almost half of the story. I don’t know. I just found it jarring.
There’s two more stories set in the same world. I might read it or not. We’ll see.
July 29, 2014 § 4 Comments
I didn’t know anything about “The Goose Girl,” a Grimm Brothers’s fairy tale on which Thorn is based but I was hooked enough by the comments of one of my favourite book bloggers to dive right into it.
Alyrra is a princess who doesn’t feel anything remotely like a princess. When circumstances conspire to strip her off her princess-ly position, she’s terrified at first, but grows to embrace her situation with élan. I love how the plot lends itself so easily to Alyrra’s growth into a confident young woman. Her be-coming into the fullness of who she is, felt real, and was completely believable unlike another princess, from another first time author.
And yes, this is a first time author by the lovely name of Intisar Khanani. She’s also self-published, so if the book interests you, and you are able to, please do go directly to her site and buy the book from the link she offers!
Power and the ability to wield justice (or injustice) are at the heart of the book. Alyrra has already experienced cruelty at the hands of her brother, a king-to-be, and as a goose girl, living with the hostlers and the common thieves, she comes to see how the decisions of those in power affect the lives of everyone around them. She would rather continue being a goose girl, away from the machinations of the court, but being who she is, she cannot fail to see the role she could play in affecting those decisions.
Of the many things to like about this book, the one I liked the best was how the “battle” between Alyrra and the “evil witch” plays out at the end of the novel. At its core, the resolution is about seeing what is at the heart of the “evil witch.” No magic is involved unless you count empathy as a magic in itself (and I do, especially in today’s world). The way that Alyrra handles it seems in keeping with what she has been becoming through the course of the story. And I have to say if Miss Khanani hadn’t allowed Alyrra to develop the way she did, it could all have gone horribly wrong.
The romance between Alyrra and the prince was handled deftly as well—gentle and allowed to unfold at its own pace. The only snag, a very slight one was. . . the children’s literature feel to the story. That’s not even really a criticism, just something that I felt towards the end, something I wasn’t really expecting to encounter.
On the whole, I’d recommend this book to everyone who loves a good story. I’d especially tell the adults to get this book for that special teen in their lives who loves himself or herself a good fantasy!
July 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
The work that I want to talk about today is a short story. It’s been nominated for a Hugo and you can go read it for free at Tor.com. It’s called the “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere.”
Onto the story—I really really liked it. The thing that I like the best may very well be the thing that might annoy some people though.
In the world in which the story is set, water has been falling on folks out of nowhere, no matter where they are—inside their homes or outside on the road. It rapidly becomes clear that this rainfall is a clever plot device. You see, the rain only drenches somebody (and it is apparently a very very cold drench) when they open their mouth and a falsehood comes out of it. A nifty way to know whether the person in front of you is saying something they really mean or not!
And that’s it. That’s the extent of the “science fiction” element of the story. Against this background the actual story unfolds which is about Matt, a Chinese man, coming out to his parents and telling them that he is gay.
I found Matt annoying to start off with but Mr. Chu redeemed him for me as the story progressed. Matt’s sister sounds somewhat unbelievable—his relationship with her is a source of central conflict in the story—and I sincerely hope that nobody has a sibling that awful! (Do not even say that she did all those horrible things to him out of sisterly affection!)
As I said, I can see how this story may very well annoy folks who would rather have the science fiction play a stronger role. For me though, it was just perfect. An integral part of the story but not the whole story. I am now tempted to go read the other short stories that have been nominated too!
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.
June 11, 2014 § 2 Comments
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!
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!
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:
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.)