In Brief: Recently Read (Neels, Pratchett, Wynne Jones)

betty-neels-vicars-daughterThe Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels: I take my time with a Betty Neels story, and I like taking my time with a Betty Neels story. In no rush to reach the end, I savor all the details that I know for sure I will encounter in one of Neels’s story. This one was no different. In fact, it was a pleasant revelation of sorts! A few pages into the story, it hit me that I’d read this one years ago, and disdained its nothing-happens-in-it-ness. I also recall feeling disgusted at the sheer stupidity of its heroine. What a pleasant surprise to find that it was exactly its quietness that made me enjoy the story this time around. And what I’d labeled as Margo’s stupidity, now came across as an endearing quality. Isn’t it fun, and funny, how a few years, and some living of life changes the way we perceive a thing? Have you had any reading experience where you’ve swung from one side of the pendulum to another? (Or perhaps just drifted along the spectrum?)

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett: Need I mention that I loved it? If there were such a thing as a spirit author, I think Terry Pratchett would be mine. I find myself highlighting/marking reams and reams in any Pratchett story I read. He’s thought-provoking, funny (even when things are NOT fun!), and generally some flavor of what I’ve experienced as “true” in my own life. I’ve already put another of his Discworld stories (Going Postal) on hold (I want there to be some passage of time between Wintersmith, and the next Tiffany Aching story that I read).

Tiffany grows up some more in Wintersmith. She (and we) experience the power of the stories we tell ourselves (and others), and come to inhabit, even more forcefully. There’s this whole “Boffo” plot in the story centered around this concept that I absolutely loved (and don’t want to talk about for fear of spoiling it!)

It made sense. Of course it made sense. It was all Boffo! Every stick is a wand, every puddle is a crystal ball. No thing had any power that you didn’t put there. Shambles and skulls and wands were like . . . shovels and knives and spectacles. They were like . . . levers. With a lever you could lift a big rock, but the lever didn’t do any work.

Annagramma, who we met in A Hat Full of Sky, returns in Wintersmith.  She’s as unthinking, stupid, and annoying (Tiffany’s words!) as before but it’s interesting to note that in time of need she turns to Tiffany, and that Tiffany finds it in her to see to the truth of Annagramma—annoying but also perhaps a little frightened at her core, and deserving of Tiffany’s help. I’d call them frenemies, and I actually find their relationship oddly satisfying.

Annagramma does not suddenly transform into a kind soul herself as a result of all the kindness she receives. She continues to be annoying but her annoyingness does lose its edge. It becomes more rounded, and she herself becomes more bearable as we see this side of her where she’s willing to ask for help, and follow-through on what she receives. I really like how her character developed in Wintersmith, and I hope there’s more of her in the next two books!

Also, this!:

Tiffany had looked up “strumpet” in the Unexpurgated Dictionary, and found it meant “a woman who is no better than she should be” and “a lady of easy virtue.” This, she decided after some working out, meant that Mrs. Gytha Ogg, known as Nanny, was a very respectable person. She found virtue easy, for one thing. And if she was no better than she should be, then was just as good as she ought to be.

witch-weekWitch Week by Diana Wynne Jones: So here’s the thing. I find Diana Wynne Jones intellectually satisfying but I find Pratchett intellectually AND emotionally satisfying. Does that make sense? Has anyone else experienced this with respect to these two authors (or maybe another pair)? Maybe you’ve felt the exact reverse of what I stated?

This is my sixth Wynne Jones (I’ve read the first two in Howl’s Moving Castle, and the first four in Chrestomanci), and I am very definitely going to be reading A LOT more of her books but I find myself contemplating this difference in the way I connect with Jones, and Pratchett.

I think part of it maybe because of the fact that in most of the books I’ve read so far (by Jones), I have NO IDEA what is going on till more than the half-way mark while I have some dim sense of the meaning underlying the gobbledygook in Pratchett. Then there’s the setting of Pratchett’s story vs. Wynne Jones’s. Tiffany Aching’s world is one of plains, and forests, while most of the Wynne Jones’s stories that I’ve read so far happens in buildings—schools, castles, houses. In and of itself, I wouldn’t find this particularly claustrophobic. But when I juxtapose it with Pratchett’s stories, I can’t help feeling slightly confined by them. There’s this sense of openness, this sense of an all-encompassing-ness that I feel in the Tiffany Aching stories, and that I find myself responding to which I don’t feel in Wynne Jones’s books. It is of course possible that this does indeed exist in Wynne Jones’s world too and is just something I haven’t tuned in to yet! Even in terms of their systems of magic, Wynne Jones’s just is (and there’s nothing wrong with that!) but I do so love the way it seems to work in Pratchett’s, or Tiffany Aching’s world at any rate. It’s this heady mix of a zen-like practise, common sense, the use of herbs and plants, and a leveraging of folklore that appeals to me! (And I am not even referring to what “witching” is really supposed to be about!)

What about Witch Week itself? It is so clever! (Also, the next paragraph MIGHT be considered spoiler-ish so consider yourself warned)

At its heart, this is a book about the ways in which we cope with being different. The characters in the book try to hide their differences, feel scared at being different, and do their best to blend in. And yet, they can’t help feeling pulled towards what they perceive as being different within them. I thought the twist in the end regarding this was simply spectacular. Turns out EVERYONE is different! I’m a little in awe of the way the story and the theme are so inseparable in this one!

I liked this but I enjoyed Conrad’s Fate and The Lives of Christopher Chant more. I’m also really looking forward to The Magicians of Caprona, and The Pinhoe Egg, both of whose summaries make me think that I’ll probably enjoy them! Fingers-crossed!

A No-Point List

The Book That Was On Hold The Longest In My Library List Before I Unfroze It: The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold (I put it on hold in March, froze it, and then unfroze it in December. I loved it by the way in case you’re wondering)

The Book That I’m Still Not Sure I Can Articulate Properly About: The Argonauts because I  loved reading a “mainstream” book that articulated so much of what I think-feel, especially its focus on joy (or what I felt was one of its focus anyway).

The Book That Introduced Me to My New Comfort Author: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, And A Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

The Author That I AM GLAD WROTE SO MANY BOOKS: Betty Neels (also known as one of my comfort read authors)

The Poetry Book That I Inhaled In One Sitting: Felicity by Mary Oliver (it’s only 96 pages long!)

The One Book That I Wish Was in Print so that I COULD BUY IT!: Cherry Cake & Ginger Beer by Jane Brocket

The Book That I Am So Glad Was Written: The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Book That I Never Expected to Read: Poetics of Reverie by Gaston Bachelard (Still on the first chapter. I read only a few pages at a time, and only when I’m in the mood for it. But holy hell, some of the bits make me yelp out loud because it is SO ME!)

The Book I Was Looking Forward to Reading The Most and Left Mid-Way: Middlemarch by George Eliot. Life happened to this one. I still plan on picking it up at some point of time.

The Book I HAD TO LOOK UP THE END OF (NOT my modus operandi): Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer. Cliff-hanger ending! So decided to leave the book unfinished, and come back to it after the second in the series is released in February. BUT. I had ALL THE FEELS about the almost one-third that I DID manage to finish.

And, my biggest readerly realization this year: to be cognizant of the fact that another’s response to a book, and the book itself are two very distinct things. And so even though I might enjoy what someone else thinks-feels about a book, I myself might not enjoy the book in question, because, well, I am me. With my own interests, beliefs, background, and all the stuff that makes up who I am. Sounds obvious when I think about it but this has been an important realization for me as a reader to come to this year!

So that’s my no-point list for 2016! As always, I don’t think I have any specific reading goals for the coming year except the general intention to read things that bring comfort, joy, and expand the way I think of, and relate to the world around me! Hopefully, some times, I will also manage to find the happy marriage of all three!

O, hai!

Hello Readers! If there are any! I was inspired by this lovely post to write something—anything!

Let’s see what have I been reading lately?

Lots of cookbooks! (I love cooking!) Enough that I want to buy a new bookcase sometime soon, so that I can have a whole shelf dedicated to my cookbooks! What would I keep on it? Food52’s Genius Recipes, Deborah Madison’s The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, Jane Brocket’s Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer (that is IF I can find a copy somewhere!), and Karen Page’s The Vegetarian Flavor Bible (I love this book!) I’m also looking forward to the new Food52 cookbook, and Julia Thurshen’s Small Victories very, very much!

There’s been some other stuff too—Diana Wynne Jones’s Conrad’s Fate (I have to say that I wish I’d started Jones with the Chrestomanci series rather than Howl’s Moving CastleHowl made me feel slightly off-kilter, and so I ended up being more focused on the plot; the Chrestomanci series on the other hand puts me on a more comfortable footing with Wynne Jones’s style, probably because it has the familiar comfort of all the school adventures that I read as a kid!), Pussy: A Reclamation, some Betty Neels (my new favorite: Fate is Remarkable), Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost which is on perpetual hold at my library, so I read some, then return it, then read again, and return it—but mostly, I haven’t been reading that much.

In many ways, it feels to me as if I’m going through a period of wanting to know myself more. I’m sure there is a phrase to describe this—this wanting to burrow deeper within myself. To feel more of that core that I feel when I meditate, to live from this core, to be an expression of this core, to see the world through the eyes of this core, if that makes sense.

I can completely understand if you’re wondering whether I’ve gone off my rocker! This too is me, it’s just not something that I’ve expressed a whole lot of, here, in this particular space, before.

Anyhoo, I’ll end with my current favorite string of words which happens to be from The Poetics of Reverie:

Reverie sacralizes its object.

Wishing you all safe spaces, and happy hearts!

Mysteries of the Universe & of the Heart: Romance, Black Holes, and Poetry

Since I haven’t been in the mood to write posts on individual books, I decided to do a list of the stuff that I’ve been reading in the recent past!

old fashioned girl betty neelsAn Old-Fashioned Girl by Betty Neels: I loved this one. Partly it’s because of the heroine, Patience, who while not exactly unflappable, has an equanimity that’s not very common to Neels’ heroines. I also realized why Neels is such a comfort read for me—her descriptions evoke this feeling of utter soothing-ness that I can’t help but love! The first third of An Old-Fashioned Girl is set in a small village which is beset by a snowstorm, leaving our hero, heroine, and the housekeeper trapped inside for days on end. The pages that followed were some of my favorite—I really liked the description of the minutiae of  their snowbound lives. (Which is why I think enjoyed Longbourn so much—because of the minutiae I mean). Then there’s the staple food and furniture renditions which is such fun to picture in the mind’s eye.

Light Years, Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper by Caroline Woodard: I’m making my way through this at a glacial speed. I like picking it up when I’m in the mood for it, generally before going to bed, and reading maybe half a chapter at a time. Like the Neels, I find the descriptions of the barely-tamed Canadian wildness very soothing, and also very liberating. Joy and solitude co-exist in this one.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase: I can see why this is such a reader favorite. It would have been very easy to thoroughly dislike Sebastian Dain, except that we keep getting glimpses into his inner workings, and the reasons why he does what he does, and in that process it’s easy to feel sympathetic towards him. Plus, Jessica! What a wonderful heroine! Another woman, who while not exactly unflappable, knows how to keep her head. Thinking back, it occurs to me that Sebastian is a hero who has all the feels but didn’t really know what to do with them!

The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All by C.D. Wright:

In a Word, a World

I love them all.

I love that a handful, a mouthful, gets you by, a satcheful can land you a job, a well-chosen clutch of them could get you laid, and that a solitary word can initiate a stampede, and therefore can be formally outlawed—even by a liberal court bent on defending a constitution guaranteeing unimpeded utterance. I love that the Argentine gaucho has over two hundred words the coloration of horses and the Sami language of Scandinavia has over a thousand words for reindeer based on age, sex, appearance—e.g. a busat has big balls or only one big ball. More than the pristine, I love the filthy ones for their descriptive talent as well as transgressive nature. I love the dirty ones more than the minced, in that I respect extravagant expression more than reserved. I admire reserve, especially when taken to an ascetic nth. I love the particular lexicons of particular occupations. The substrate of those activities. The nomenclature within nomenclatures. I am of the unaccredited school that believes animals did not exist until Adam assigned them names. My relationship to the word is anything but scientific; it is a matter of faith on my part, that the word endows material substance, by setting the thing named apart from all else. Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.

The Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein: I decided to take a break while I was mid-way through the fourth in the series but I can say with utmost certainty that it’s this second in the series that shall remain my favorite. The outskirts in the second book are akin to endless grasslands, and Kirstein’s superb at bringing its inherent harshness to life. The tribes that inhabit these prairie like regions that are not exactly human-friendly have a rich culture. Kristein’s intricate details of their daily life and its routines, their society and its hierarchical structure, their modes of communication, their myth and lore, is magnificent in both its breadth and its depth. The plot moves slowly but steadily as the reader comes to know more about these outsiders. It’s also in this second book that the reader comes to have a sure sense of the nature of the magic in this world. Though to be fair, the third the in the series which by the way is VERY WEIRD—enough so that I made it a point to not read it before sleeping—did make me wonder if perhaps there was more going on in this world than what I thought I understood! So, ANYWAY! I’d strongly recommend this series. It’s one of the best SFF that I’ve read in a while.

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin: I should mention that one of my dream vacations is camping in the middle of the Atacama Desert in Chile while I gaze my fill at the astounding brilliance of the Milky Way, and make treks to the European Southern Observatory, to peek through their giant telescopes into the vast beauty of our Universe (and if possible wrangle an invitation to the other-wordly and yet so utterly inviting ESO Hotel). This is a compulsively readable account of the events and the characters who shaped the events that led to the discovery of gravitational waves late last year. It’s fascinating because till I started reading it, I realized I too had thought of the stars and the interstellar dust only in terms of the visible and not the auditory.

So that’s it for me! Which books made a strong impression on you in these past few weeks? Would love to know!

Rosemary Kirstein, The Steerswoman

I think what I love the most about this story is the way it takes for granted that there’s no inherent power imbalance between men and women simply because of their respective genders. The women of this story are soldiers, innkeepers, sailors, warriors, farmers, poets, and have the freedom to do as they please sexually. In a delightful twist, the eponymous steerswomen of the story derive their “power” from observation, deduction, logic, and knowledge of mathematics.

The protagonist, Rowan, is a steerswoman too (with an impressive spatial sense!). Her companion on the journey, Bel, is a woman as well. In this, it reminded me of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy which also features two women as its main POV characters. That’s the only similarity between these stories though. One of the biggest divergences is the way Kirstein treats magic (at least in this first book)—it’s shrouded in mystery given that it’s the domain of wizards who just don’t share their secrets with anyone. There are gnomes, and goblins, and dragons in the story and yet the few glimpses we get of magic definitely made me wonder about its source and brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s postulation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

the steerswomanOne of the most fun aspects of the story is watching Rowan piece things together. She does this again, and again, putting her mind to the situation at hand, thinking, deducing, and arriving at the best possible options. In a way it’s watching the “scientific process” at work, and it’s extremely satisfying! There’s also some thoughtful and thought-provoking philosophical bits scattered throughout the story and the amazing thing is that they are so tightly interwoven with the actual plot that it took me a while to notice the depth of what the characters were thinking.

The Steerswoman is a story that has BOTH page-turning AND  quiet, subtle moments of storytelling. My only quibble is a minor character that appeared in the beginning, and was part of some scenes that led me to think that he’s going to be instrumental later on but wasn’t. My quibble isn’t that he did not appear again—but that he seemed to have been used to simply extend a few pages. However, this is a VERY MINOR QUIBBLE!

This, again, is an example of a book that does the whole magic-science (magic vs. science?) thing SO MUCH BETTER than Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. The series is available in e-book format for a very reasonable price (apparently the rights reverted to the author, and she chose to self-publish), and I’d definitely urge you to give the first one a try!

Kirstein has two more books planned for the series but really the first book is so self-contained, albeit with some bigger questions left unanswered, that I don’t at all mind having started it! I’ve only read the first book so far but the structure seems similar to the Harry Potter books in that there are two parallel narratives arcs at any given point of time—one is the series wide unfolding with each successive book, and the other a book-length story that is resolved within the book itself. I could be wrong but I’m definitely going ahead with this series!

To end—

“I’m sorry, Bel, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t necessarily respect other people’s religions, or any religion. But the people—I respect them, and I give them the honor they deserve, whatever they believe.”

Super Mini Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I loved the first half, and while on-the-edge-of-my-seat for the second half, didn’t really enjoy it that much.

All my favorite bits were in the first half, especially the magic, the description and workings of which I loved! I’m referring to Agnieszka’s brand of magic here by the way. I just loved, loved the way she “feels” her way to magic—and how the instructions that make sense to her seem to be vague, kind-of, sort-of pointing towards the destination, but letting the way to that destination to be one of her own making. If I were a witch, this is EXACTLY how I would go about it too! Just sayin’!

I also very much enjoyed how Agnieszka’s intuitive approach when combined with the Dragon’s more logical approach leads to more! Yes! I wish All The Birds in the Sky had done something like this right from the start rather than making a message out of it at the end!

As for the second half, I quote LizMc2 whose thoughts about this book have an eerie similarity to mine! “It’s like super hero movies: I like the origin story/discover your powers part, and then it’s all giant special effects action scenes and I get bored.” Yep, the second half was one mad rush of action, and while not bad, wasn’t as good as the first half. Plus, I found the story ended on a note of whimper for me. The whole “evil wood queen” genesis story felt weak, and unconvincing.

On the whole, I have to agree with LizMc2, The Princess Curse was just more satisfying!

Mini Review: All The Birds In the Sky

This is a weird book. And I mean that in a value-neutral way. Anders’s writing, and the things she imagines. . . I couldn’t stop this sense of being an outsider looking into a totally different, alien-ish world.

Patricia is a witch, and Laurence is a super-genius engineer. She can turn herself into a bird and he can build super computers. They’re both interesting kids who face some REALLY ugly bullying and cruelty in school.

The trouble begins when we meet them ten years later.

Patricia’s desire to save everyone, and everyone admonishing her not to become an “aggrandizer” soon became tiresome. The weirdness had stopped being interesting, and all the details had started boring me enough to make me skim and skip paragraphs. The only reason I persevered was because I wanted to know how the “vision” that a sort-of-villain had early on in the book was going to play out. By the way, this sort-of-villain was probably my favorite character in the book. He is an assassin who becomes a counsellor and his ongoings had just the right hint of buffoonery in them for me to stop believing that he was really a villain.

The last one-third of the book would have been much better except that Patricia and Laurence have a Big Misunderstanding. Romance readers, you know what that means. Non-romance readers, that’s basically when an author uses miscommunication between the protagonists to further the plot. (or is there a better way to say that, romance readers?) It drives me nuts. Patricia becomes this cold bitchy person and Laurence a sad, sad man. It did not help that the post-apocalyptic world that Anders describes is. .  . meh. The misunderstanding IS cleared up a little later but by that time we were nearing the end and I just did not have the patience for it.

Then comes the end. Which was a little too. . . twee for me. Don’t get me wrong, I actually DON’T think that rationale/logic and intuition/perception are incompatible but I just did NOT like having this particular ending to the journey that Anders had been promising all along. To be fair, if I’d enjoyed the book more I can see how I would have totally argued FOR such a “simple” solution but it is what it is, reader!

Ok, rant over! I definitely want to hear from those who enjoyed the book!