The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child is a re-telling of ‘Snegurochka’, a Russian folktale in which an old childless couple’s life rings with joy and laughter after they find the snow maiden they created one evening come to life.

Mabel and Jack are a forlorn old couple who’ve drifted apart and are struggling to survive in the wilds of Alaska. They’re 50 years old and their childlessness leaves a hole in their lives and in their relationship. One evening, the snow beckons them outside and they fashion a snow maiden from the season’s first snowfall. The next day they discover that the snow maiden has vanished and come to find their woods haunted by a little girl sporting the same mittens and scarf that the snow maiden was wearing. Is Faina, the snow maiden real or magical?

Miss Ivey eschews a clear-cut answer. There are scenes that hint of Faina’s etherealness and then there are facts that seem to shout out that Faina’s very much of this earth. To obscure this even further the reader is compelled to wonder whether Faina’s utter ease with the landscape that seems to mark her as its own is because of her other-wordly origins or just a manifestation of a child who learned the ropes of survival very early in her life.

As Faina brings a measure of joy to Mabel’s and Jack’s life, another event in which Jack breaks his back and Mabel, an English professor’s daughter learns to till the land begins healing the fissure that had sprung up between them. They come to enjoy the hard life and the tough work and also come to be at peace with the landscape itself.

From thinking that

Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man’s struggle…

to

I expect we will soon have snow. The mountains are white and the mornings have a chill, and I look forward to its coming.

– their acceptance of the snow-land they have chosen to call home is gradual and complete.

The Snow Child is a story of love in the face of uncertainty.

Mabel and Jack are never certain about Faina’s origins:

Nothing tethered Faina to them. She could vanish, never return, and who was to say she had ever been loved by them?

The unyielding wilderness all around them could turn a summer into a farmer’s blessing or make it a year-long struggle for survival.

And yet, perhaps the uncertainty doesn’t matter, for

We are allowed to… invent our endings and choose joy over sorrows

The Snow Child is also a story of what it takes to survive on the edges of civilization. I enjoyed the vignettes of frontier living with their scenes of subsistence farming and hunting – they lend a certain vividness to the Alaskan setting.

For me, The Snow Child operates on two levels – the first, as a story of a childless couple who learns and earns “the joys and sorrows of a lifetime” to quote the book’s last line and the second, as a meditation on Alaska itself.

I have not encountered nature writings before but reading The Snow Child I am tempted to pick up Annie Dillard’s ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ and perhaps venture into some Thoreau as well. I imagine a whole book full of nature meditations would be quite lovely… but for now, back to The Snow Child!

The writing like the stark landscape it describes is devoid of any embellishment – Miss Ivey deploys words with great precision, never using more than what is required. Indeed the writing seems imbued with a sense of stillness, perhaps imbibing from the rugged beauty of its setting. Miss Ivey, a life time Alaskan resident shines in her portrayal of the breath-taking terrain and its wildlife:

It wasn’t just the river otter. She once spied a gray-brown coyote slinking across a field with his mouth half open as in laughter. She watched Bohemian waxwings like twilight shadows flock from tree to tree as if some greater force orchestrated their flight. She saw a white ermine sprint past the barn with a fat vole in its mouth. And each time, Mabel felt something leap in her chest. Something hard and pure.

She was in love. Eight years she’d lived here, and at last the land had taken hold of her…

I do not really have any nits to pick – if at times I felt impatient with Mabel’s desolation, well, the story merited it. The ending is slightly surprising. And bittersweet. But it is also hopeful. Kind of like life.

Go, pick up your copy!

P.S. Isn’t the name of the author herself Eowyn Ivey sort of magical and fairytale-ish? (And yes I remember Eowyn from LOTR!)

Quick & Snappy

It’s another year! A Happy Happy 2013 everyone! To quote Dag Hammarskjöld, “For all that has been — Thanks. For all that shall be — Yes.”

Kindle Paperwhite Anyone?

As I’ve told my husband his gift to me this Valentine’s Day shall be the Kindle Paperwhite! I AM interested in user feedback before the purchase though – what has been your experience if you’re using it?

While I love e-ink which is easy on the eyes I HAVE found myself wishing for a backlit screen for all the times when everyone else is fast asleep and I’m snuggled in and too cozy to move elsewhere!

Reading & Writing Resolutions

I don’t really have any except to whittle down my TBR, and inflate it at the same rate.  And of course to write more and more.

These Last Few Weeks

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer: A delightful romp despite the implausibility of a heroine who is perpetually perky, a few character turnabouts a little hard to believe in, a 20 year old age difference between the hero and the heroine and the general omniscience of the hero.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore: Another rave-review getter which turned out to be ok-ish for me. The characters and the plot line were somewhat simplistic; they lacked the layers for me to sink my teeth into despite Kristin Cashore touching on some tough-world issues in the book. The overall tone was a little juvenile for me – which considering that Graceling is marketed as a YA novel is something that I should not be complaining about I guess! Oh, well.

The Snow Child by Eown Ivey – Review to come. On the whole, I enjoyed it!

Coming Up Next (reading-wise). Hopefully.

The Chocolate Kiss – Laura Florand
Brownies & Broomsticks – Baily Cates
Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt

No fantasy for the time being. The very thought of fantasy brings up that sickly sweet feeling that one gets after gorging on too much sugar!

The Girl Who Chased the Moon – Sarah Addison Allen (A Review)

In the mood for something light and frothy I picked up Sarah Addison Allen’s ‘The Girl Who Chased the Moon’. The story follows the lives of two women one particular summer in the town of Mullaby, North Carolina. Julia, in her late 30s has returned to her hometown for a 2 year period 18 years after her traumatic teens. Emily, a 17 year old has come to live with her grandfather after her mother’s death and is eager to discover more about her mother and her past. The town of Mullaby is peopled with oddities – Sawyer, who can see the thin waft of a cake being baked anywhere in the town and follow it to its source; Vance, Emily’s grandfather who is eight feet tall and perhaps ‘tall enough to see into tomorrow’; a family which has not ventured out in the night for generations; and a wallpaper that changes itself according to its occupant’s moods.

Against this peculiar backdrop Julia and Emily yearn to find that place which is home, the place where they ‘fit in’; a fact that is ironical (as Miss Allen herself points out) considering that Mullaby itself is strange and different from other Southern towns. In fact ‘fitting in’ is the theme of this novel. That Miss Allen is able to show through one of the other major characters that fitting in can only follow after a measure of self-acceptance was something I found commendable.

This is my first encounter with Miss Allen and I would characterize my reading experience as ‘more-or-less pleasant’. The characters were developed adequately but none of them spoke to me in a way that I could be bothered to summon the energy to root for any of them. They each had just about the required necessary back-story to engage my interest. Same with the plot – there were just about enough elements to want me to get to the last page once I started. The one major quibble I have with the plot was the way Emily’s mother who had had a checkered past was suddenly vindicated at the end – it was this bit which made it hard for me to suspend my disbelief.

I did enjoy the soothing pace at which the story unfolded – I had the reassuring feeling of reaching an agreed upon destination with no nasty surprises in between. Incidentally the elements of magic fitted in nicely with the overall plot. [ALERT: The next line could be constituted as a spoiler therefore I have inked it in white. Highlight it to make it visible] My favourite bit was the idea that you could call your loved one to you through the act of baking a cake – what a comforting belief! Indeed cakes and barbeque pop up frequently throughout the book and you should arm yourself with tasty bits o’ morsels if you plan on settling down with this book. (On a side note I have made a discovery – that there is food called Hush Puppies! In my defense the only Hush Puppies I have known so far have involved a pair of comfortable shoes)

Overall, this was a ho-hum experience for me. There was nothing about this novel that sparkled. The characters, the plot, the atmosphere, the mysteries and the magic – none offered anything original or striking. This is generally not an issue because every author puts to use an element, a theme, an archetype which has in all likelihood been employed before. However, in stories that are enjoyable each author brings something fresh to his / her treatment of these archetypes. That treatment is missing in this novel. I could probably try one more book by this author to check whether this is true of all of Miss Allen’s works or just this one and then decide whether or not I will continue seeking out Miss Allen for my comfort reads – which of course gives me a subject for another post! Namely, what elements go into the making of a perfect comfort read. Let me know what you think, dear reader – both about this book and about your perfect comfort read!

P.S. The cover image is gorgeous and may have played a role in my selection of this book!

In thrall of Francis Crawford, Phillipa Somerville & Dorothy Dunnett

It feels like my life has been consumed by Dorothy Dunnett. Francis Crawford of Lymond and Phillipa Somerville have grabbed hold of me so forcefully that I do not even wish to enter a new world any more.

I am just about able to restrain myself from jumping a few pages ahead to see how it all ends. As I’d mentioned earlier this struggle between wanting to slow down and gallop ahead seems to mark this first round of reading. The sheer brilliance which is these books has just started to register with me – Rich character development: check; Layered and a thorough plot line: check; Prose: Ahh, what can I say about the prose… I have to stomp down the desire to break into hyperbole. I have this niggling feeling that I have just scratched the surface with this first reading and have yet to plumb the depths of delight offered by these books. I see now why Dunnett fans have read and re-read these works.

In fact I am contemplating purchasing the companion book which I suspect will deepen my appreciation of these books for my next round of reading. Indeed I have found myself wikipaedia-ing Mary Tudor, Richard Chancellor, Ivan the Terrible, Henry the IV, the Siege of Calais and the innumerable other characters and events from history that form the canvass for Miss Dunnett’s imagination. Reading up on these I am in awe at the way Miss Dunnett integrates these actual historical figures and events so adroitly and seamlessly into her narrative. I can only wonder at the sheer research which must have gone into the writing of these books. The fact that Miss Dunnett delivers so consistently with each one of them amazes me.

I am now on the sixth and the final installment of this phenomenal saga. I am both loath and impatient for it to end.

Francis Crawford of Lymmond

It’s been a long while since I’ve been so thoroughly captivated by a body of work. But that then is the power of Dorothy Dunnett, one of literature’s best kept secrets. I do not even remember any longer how I chanced upon Miss Dunnett; just glad that I did.

My introduction to Miss Dunnett has been via Francis Crawford of Lymmond, perhaps the greatest of all literary heroes (yes, he far surpasses the inestimable Mr. Darcy and can teach a thing or two to Rhett Butler). Francis Crawford, younger brother to Lord Culter, can break into poetry, philosophy and bawdry at the tip of a hat – and use English, Fresh, Gaellic, Scottish and most likely a few other languages while he’s doing it. He’s fiercely loyal to his country. He can inhabit and discard personas at ease (a skill which he uses to great comic results). Old or young, king or soldier, everyone wants him at their side (including the 8 year old Mary Queen of Scots). Conflate swordsmanship par excellence with a wild imagination (one that would be called thinking-out-of-the-box in today’s parlance) and you have at hand schemes and plots which not only spell doom for the English and the French but also make for some spectacularly funny episodes (the sheep scene in the Disorderly Kinghts or the episode with the Spanish Don in the Game of Kings). I can go on and on and use a few more superlatives while I’m at it.

Not only the hero whose 10 yrs of life we follow through the six-book series but also the secondary characters (more than half of whom are actual historical figures) are very well-etched and make one want to root for them. Or in the case of a few characters  make one hate them with a fervour. Yes, so completely does Miss Dunnett draw you into her world.

Be warned though that Miss Dunnett is unrelenting in her erudition. She demands absolute engagement with her story – slip up and you’ll find yourself scrambling to figure out what exactly happened. The setting is mid-16th century Europe and to someone with nary a clue about that period (like this reader) the series poses its own set of challenges (and quite frankly I found the intrigues and counter-intrigues of the Scottish, French and English courts exhausting at times).

Add to this a prose which cannot be breezed through; yet a prose which demonstrates again and again just how pliant words are in Miss Dunnett’s extremely capable hands. She wields them to reveal vividly and with great poetry the disposition of her characters, “Stewart’s coarse skin was moist with heat; the brows indented, line upon line, where the fretful pressures of his spirit squeezed into his flesh day and night”. She dumps into the reader’s head a complete and fully formed picture of her characters with phrases like an “awkward clod of an Irishman”. And then there are constructions that the reader just falls in love with: “It was the English, mauled and unregarded, of a person who spoke many languages and left them broken-hinged and crumbled like clams, solely attacked for the meat.”

Let’s move to the story. Richly layered with unexpected twists the plots across the books are complex and feed into each subsequent book as well. For the first two books I was at a loss as to what was going on till almost 100 pages into the book. And then as I caught onto the bigger story in the background I found myself breathless. And impatient to plunge deeper and deeper into the labyrinth which Miss Dunnett has built. This tension between my desire to steamroll ahead into the story and stop and assimilate the historical underpinnings being revealed (along with savouring the word-songs) characterizes my experience of the Lymmond Chronicles so far.

Quite easily, I have found one of those series which I know for sure I will be returning to. I think I will be able to adopt a more critical perspective and speak with some objectivity only on my re-reading of the entire series. In the meanwhile I have 3.7 more novels to devour and gush about!

P.S. I have an awful suspicion that the title ‘A Game of Thrones’ might have been very well ‘inspired’ by Miss Dunnett’s decade’s earlier ‘A Game of Kings’.

oh. my.

Francis of Lymond.

Polyglot. Tactician. Philosopher. Strategist. Orator. Musician. Brilliant Swordsman. Poet.

I just finished The Game of Kings – the first in the 6 part Francis of Lymond series by Dorothy Dunnett.

What an imagination. What a labor of love.

I have been rendered incoherent.

tana french and karen marie moning

The Faithful Place – Can we really shed our past? Is it not better to just embrace it rather than keep pushing against it? That to me seems to be the overarching theme of The Faithful Place. An extremely well crafted murder mystery, the pages of The Faithful Place pulsed with the life-blood of Liberties (the location of the story) – the location is very definitely a character of its own in this novel. So much of the characters’ actions (and non-actions) are shaped by The Faithful Place (the specific locality in Liberties where the story plays out) and all that it stands for in each of the character’s mind. In fact the book is so well-written that despite having guessed the identity of the culprit half-way through the book, I still wanted to plow through all of the details. Well-deserving of all the hype and hoopla surrounding it.

Fever Series – Whoa! Packs a punch. Un-put-down-able. I found the heroine a tad irritating and wanted to scream at her to grow up for almost the whole of the series. The hero – ahh, like all good escapist-fiction (and as one would expect from a former romance author) is totally sigh-worthy with nary a flaw in sight. The BEST part of the series though is that at the end of the series the delineation of who is the hero and who the villain is well blurred. If motive counts (and it DOES in my book), then well… would you still call the villain of the story the villain? Miss Moning mentioned she wanted her readers to see shades of grey all over and she has for certain accomplished that. All in all Karen Marie Moning has created an unforgettable world and I cannot wait to read more of Dani’s and/or MacKayla’s adventure!

The Hunger Games

Just finished Hunger Games.  What a book – sucked me right in!

Katniss is a brutally honest character who annoyed me a lot. She knows how to survive. Peeta (the second central character) is her antithesis of sorts. The description of the District and the Capitol gives them a character of their own and I’m guessing are an important tool in the author’s hand for setting up the overall theme of the books.

my takeaway from book 1: the ease with which one allows oneself to see only what is being shown. the ease with which one can become desensitized to what goes around one’s immediate circle. the power inherent in desperation. the tyranny of absolute control.

Overall, a very well-written book with a plot which sets its hooks into you right from the start and characters who are fleshed out very well. Can’t wait to dig into the 2nd book.

A great, big start…

In a fit of hyper-enthusiasm, I have decided to start a book blog.  I love books, I like expressing my thoughts in the written format so the endeavor seems to make sense ( it does in this moment, at least). The rest, as they say, is “raam-bharose” (upto God).

As to what all will go into this blog – hmm…

Reviews?
Maybe.

Links?
Likely.

Thoughts about books, or written word in general?
Hopefully!

It’s funny – as this thought gathers momentum I’m struck by a fear of forgetting my Ps & Qs & the correct & proper grammatical structure. :-\

Oh well, we shall see….

P.S. Oh wow! I’m glad I decided on wordpress – the theme makes me WANT to write!