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!

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!

Patricia Wrede, Mairelon The Magician & The Magician’s Ward

I thoroughly enjoyed Patricia Wrede’s Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot series when I read it a couple of years ago. So recently when I was in the mood for some comfort reading, I decided to hunt down some more of her books.

The Magician duology features the titular magician, Mairelon, and Kim, a street urchin, and a thief who ends up accompanying Mairelon on his journey at the start of the first book. The books are written in third person and told mostly from Kim’s point of view.

mairelon the magician patricia wredeReading Mairelon The Magician, the first in the series, I realized that one of the reasons I enjoy Wrede so much is because of her world-building. And I’m not referring to the magical elements in her stories.

I’ve normally seen the words world-building used in the context of fantasies but I’ve come to think of “world-building” as a tool that every author can wield, to some extent or the other.

The world-building in fantasies is obvious and more often than not consists of building literally a new world for the story to inhabit and exist in. But the world-building aspect need not necessarily be confined to “fantastical elements” in a story.

For instance, earlier this year I read Betty Neels for the first time ever, and it struck me that Neels’s use of certain elements—such as the details of the food, or the specifics of the décor, and the furnishings—is distinctive enough across all her stories to stand out as rudiments central to the Neelsian “world.”

In Wrede’s case one of the tools she uses very effectively is the way Kim speaks (and by extension, the words in which her thoughts are conveyed to us, the readers). To be honest, I have no idea whether people from the streets of London really spoke this way in the early part of the 19th century. Or maybe Wrede just made it all up? The colorfulness and disparateness of Kim’s speech is powerful enough to hasten the sense of being sucked into another world.

“Why not?” Kim said indignantly. “Anyone as meets you can see you’re a regular swell, and it queers me what your lay is. Bilking the culls in the markets ain’t work for a gentry cove, and you ain’t told me nothin’. I got reason for wonderin’.”

~ Mairelon The Magician

“Don’t go pitching me no gammon. You ain’t heard near enough, acos I’ll lay you a monkey the gentry-mort ain’t told you I was on the sharping lay afore Mairelon took a fancy to adopt me.”

~ The Magician’s Ward

As you can make out from the above, Kim gets adopted by Mairelon as his ward at the end of the first book. And at the end of the second book, they end up engaged. I was very interested in seeing how Wrede would show this change in their relationship given that in the first book they come off as a gentleman, and his page-in-training with nary a whiff of romance.

the magician's ward patricia wredeTurned out Wrede’s really good at portraying just how one could fall in love: not in a big fell swoop (at least in this case), but rather a stray thought here, and a puzzlement there, while going about the business of living one’s life which in this case involves magical mayhem, and intrigue of all sorts. I quite like how it takes time for Kim’s brain to catch up with where her heart has already gone.

If I had to sum up why Wrede’s books are comfort read, I’d say it’s because of the perfect blend of magic, old-timey England, a dash of romance, and a plot that is interesting enough despite being slightly boring at times (and no I refuse to believe that that’s an outright contradiction, thank you very much).

I’ll leave you with my favorite words from the books:

Bubblebrained, pigheaded, sapskulled gull! Muttonheaded flat! Nodcock. Goosecap.

Well, I ain’t no mace cove, and I don’t hold with bubbling a flash cull, not when it comes to getting priest-linked, anyways.

The often-exasperated fondness that had replaced the fear wasn’t love. Nor was the gratitude she felt because he had taken her out of the precarious street life that was all she had known until then, nor the also-often-exasperated respect that she had learned for him as a teacher, nor the equally exasperated friendship that surfaced when they were poking around some problem together. Exasperation, in fact, seemed to be a keynote of her feelings toward Mairelon. Was that how you fell in love with someone, then—by getting exasperated with him?