Monday, March 31, 2014

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

This is my first read for the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, for the Short Story Quest. The Once Upon a Time Challenge is a reading and viewing event for the four broad genres of fairy tale, fantasy, folklore and mythology. I plan to participate with Quest the First (reading at least five books fitting in any of these genres) and might join in for the June readalong of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

When I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I was literally in love with the book. I wrote three posts about reading the mountain of a book, one for each part, and by the end I was convinced "fantasy couldn't get any better than this, magic couldn't get more original." And I stand by my opinion after this little short story collection as well. Susanna Clarke is a fantastic writer and both the books are definitely worth your time.

The word fantasy brings to mind Tolkien and the whole range of epic fantasy, along with the insanely widespread young adult paranormal genre. What Clarke gives us in her books is something unique in today's world, basically because it is so old-fashioned. She's Neil Gaiman meeting Jane Austen, which is kind of cool.

The stories are not what you'd expect from modern fairy tales at all, but rather, they're written quite archaic and very folksy. The setting for these stories makes them special, because it isn't enchanted toadstools and pretty winged fairies that she talks about, but the eerie unknown magical world full of wicked creatures who excel in trickery and deceit. Faerie, in Clarke's world, is fairyland as it was probably first intended to be - full of the mysterious, inexplicable things that people were afraid of and avoided. While I'm not a big expert on English fairy tales, these did sound like the original, darker and more absurd Grimm's tales - the ones meant for adults, not children.

I don't suppose you need to have read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to enjoy this book. If you have read the novel, and if you loved it like I did, you must read this book! If you haven't and are too intimidated by the nine-hundred-something pages, give this a try, to get a glimpse of what she has to offer. The stories:

The Ladies of Grace Adieu - This is the expansion of a footnote from the novel. When Jonathan Strange pays his brother-in-law a visit, he encounters three lady magicians, who chide him for his (Norrell's) skepticism towards the Raven King and his pure old practical magic. It's a good story about the consequences of magic and the place of female magicians in Clarke's alternate London. Also part of the story is a charming short tale of the Raven King from when he was just a Raven Child, setting the scene for the final story.

"Magic, madam, is like wine and, if you are not used to it, it will make you drunk. A successful spell is as potent a loosener of tongues as a bottle of good claret and you will find the morning after that you have said things you now regret." 

On Lickerish Hill - This seemed to me a retelling Rumpelstiltskin, which is easily my favourite Grimm's fairy tale. Realizing these were going to be typical English fairy tales, I decided to read the book English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, which I found on Project Gutenberg. And the very first tale was Tom Tit Tot, an English version of Rumpelstiltskin. So, I should say, On Lickerish Hill is actually a retelling of Tom Tit Tot, involving Faerie and more explicit magic. It's also a first person narration, unlike your usual fairy tale, and the heroine who would have otherwise sounded like a helpless naive thing actually moves the story forward and ends up appearing pretty clever.

Mrs. Mabb - This is a darkly fantastical story about the world of Faerie and the English world colliding in a nasty cat fight over, guess what, which of the ladies, fairy or human, gets to marry this man. It works because of its utter un-originality. 

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse - This delightful little tale is set in the world of Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Specifically, in the Victorian-English village of Wall - where a wall divides two worlds that are better off separate. I loved the crossing over of worlds, and Clarke certainly seemed to have had fun writing it. The Duke of Wellington is quite a character and the story is very amusing. For all the men in this book, who historically correctly find the women basically pointless, this book does have a lot of instances of girl (lady) power.

Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower - This is a creatively written story of a man who discovers he's not quite as human as he'd grown up convinced. There is some wonderfully vivid imagery in this story.

At the end she was like a house through which a great wind rushes making all the doors bang at their frames: death was rushing through her and her wits came loose and banged about inside her head. She appeared to believe that she had been taken by force to a place where she was watched night and day by a hideous jailoress.

Tom Brightwind or How The Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby - Tom Brightwind is a handsome, arrogant fairy who reminded me a lot of someone - I racked my brains trying to remember whom and finally realized it was Howl Pendragon. A centuries older and even less morally inclined Wizard Howl. Tom is friends with a human. One day, the two friends happen to travel to a small village called Thoresby, which lies across a river and can only be accessed by ferry. Though they're initially off to another place, they end up staying in Thoresby to build a bridge. How Tom Brightwind builds the fairy bridge and what the bridge does is for you to read!

Antickes and Frets - This is the story of how the conceited and sly Queen of Scots plots revenge on the Queen of England using evil magic and a bit of cunning embroidery.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner - This, of course, was the highlight of the bunch, if only because it starred the Raven King himself. Both while I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and now, this book, I seemed even to myself like a puppy begging for scraps - for stories of John Uskglass, the Raven King. Clarke gives us a little snippet in the first story in the collection and never once mentions him till this last story. And the little bits I did get were delicious but not enough.

Each of these stories is totally different from the rest, and the only thing keeping them strung together is the probably-never-done-before way Susanna Clarke makes magic real. You'd have to read the book to know just what I mean, but I'll give you this:

It occurs to me that just as Reason is seated in the brain of Man, so we Fairies may contain within ourselves some organ of Magic.

What about you, do you like fairy tales? Old or new? And have you read Susanna Clarke?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Good Marriage (from Full Dark, No Stars) by Stephen King - Wrapping up King's March

A Good Marriage is the final story in this amazing short story collection, Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. It's a 100 page novella and makes a greatly disturbing read. If I think about it, this story has less gore as compared to Big Driver, hardly any violent graphic detail unlike 1922 and it has much fewer glimpses into crazy minds than Fair Extension. Honestly, it ought to be the least upsetting story of the entire collection; if only it weren't so true to life. 

I saved the last story of the collection for a classic Stephen King-ey experience. Reading it alone in the middle of the night (it was around 2 a.m. by the time I finished), with a reading light and shuddering every so often, resisting the impulse to just abandon the book and go to sleep instead. That's how Stephen King should be read, isn't it? Without the eerie atmosphere, the building tension, The Shining wouldn't quite have been The Shining. 

A Good Marriage is very different from the other stories in Full Dark, No Stars. It isn't about a lunatic murderer, or a raging victim driven to murder, it is the story of a murderer's wife. What would a woman do if she were to find out one day, out of nowhere, that her husband of some twenty seven years was a notorious serial killer? If she were to realize the man she loved, the man who surely loved her back, the father of her two children had lived a secret life as a murderer? How far would Darcy go to save her marriage?

It's not a unique setting, you have to admit. In fact, based as it is on a true story, it's not meant to be one of its kind. It almost reminded me of Alice Munro's Dimension in the way it focuses on the one who is the closest to an offender, the one who suffers the most after the victims, the one who gets the least sympathy: the murderer's family. That it is convincingly, worryingly realistic is what makes A Good Marriage the best and the worst story at once. King has done here what he does best. In his words, he's put "ordinary people in extraordinary situations" to provoke a reaction. He's played out this situation in invigorating, unnerving, undistorted, tear-jerking detail. 

King has toyed with the realization that someone you love, someone you thought you knew completely, can turn out to be a altogether different creature. King has described vividly how it dawns upon Darcy that you can never really know a person, not even one you've built your life with. Once the truth hits home, it takes only one caressing touch, from her husband for Darcy to be terrified of him. Seeing him for what he really is, his once-endearing toothy smile and soundless laugh make her nauseous. And she loves him.

It's a good story, and what makes it good, is how difficult it is to put yourself in Darcy's shoes. To wonder how you'd react in that situation; a situation that when not looked at personally makes so much sense. A Good Marriage is a nice story about marriage and oddly, it's a happy story, in that it leaves you with a grudging sense of relief and the realization that there's a little hope for humanity, after all.

It turns out A Good Marriage is being made into a movie. Or is it already out? I don't think I'll watch it, but I'm curious to see how it's received. I suppose it will fair well like all his movies do, I only hope it's for the right reasons.

The Afterword is brilliant. Only Stephen King can do justice to describing what he does in his stories. And it really got me thinking. 

"I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing... and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows."

As much as I love having the 'visceral' reactions that King intends to invoke in his readers, I am happy to be out of the dark and in the light, glad, of course, that he brought me out here (even if with a cheeky wink), impressed that the collection ends on a fairly optimistic note. I loved this collection, and I know overuse that word but I do mean it in its fullest sense here: I loved it. It's a must read. But I don't think I'll be revisiting Stephen King anytime soon.

My copy of Full Dark, No Stars has an extra 'bonus' story at the end. I don't want to read it. Nor do I want to read Different Seasons, which I'd picked up for King's March as well. I'm going to return those two to the library and take a temporary hiatus from Stephen King, and perhaps all things horror. I know that contradicts what I wrote in my previous post about reading everything he's ever written, but hey, I have a whole lifetime for that.) 

King's March has been quite an experience. I loved reading people's reviews of books I've already read, their opinions and recommendations of books I hope to read somewhere down the line and how almost everyone complained about that thing that always irritates the hell out of me: He doesn't just write horror! Sharing bookish love is what blogging's all about anyway. But now I'm all geared up for the Once Upon a Time Challenge - for a bit of fantasy after this. I think magic and a little gooey happy fun would do me some good right about now.

Tell me this, fellow Stephen King fans, are you ever just a bit too overwhelmed by the dark? Or did you just roll your eyes and call me a chicken? I wouldn't be offended if you did!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Top Ten Things on my Bookish Bucket List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted over at The Broke and The Bookish. This week's topic is Top Ten Things on my Bookish Bucket List. 

I have managed to tick "Join a non-virtual book club", "attend a book reading", "join a library" and "read an entire book in the library in one sitting" off my list in the last couple of years. 

Here are the rest of the things in no particular order.

1. Read books from at least 30 countries. Ever since I started this blog, I have read more world literature, translated and books originally published in English as well. But it's not enough, yet! Reading more South Asian fiction comes under this.

2. Read at least 20 books in Marathi (my mother tongue.) And more books in German (because I really need to improve it.)

3. Attend a bookish event, like a book fair or convention. Unfortunately, I haven't yet got around to being part of a book event, some annoying exam or assignment mysteriously appears whenever there's one I can. I'd love to rectify that. Sure, there's the whole idea of meeting authors, and I would love to, but somehow I just think I'll either faint with delight or find it very difficult to get coherent words out of my mouth, like a blubbering idiot. So, I'd rather just attend events and speeches and watch them from a safe distance!

4. Read every book by: Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, A. S. Byatt. It's not really fair to call them your favourite authors when you haven't done that, is it?

5. Work in a bookstore or a library. God, I would love that. Although they might end up firing me for paying more attention to the books that the customers. I would also love to work for a literary agency, or a publishing house.

6. Finish all the books I've ever started reading. I don't usually claim "DNF" quite as soon as I put a book away halfway done. See, I put them 'on hold'. I read first hundred pages of The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, put it aside for an entire year, only to return and finish it in one sitting. I love the book, and I swear, I hadn't abandoned it. So, I want to finish my "on hold" books starting with Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak..

7. Visit places from books. This list is never-ending. It includes places inspired from books (like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) and books inspired by places (like The Stanley Hotel, which is the one The Overlook from The Shining is based on.) I would love to go on a bookish tour, visit every place I've ever read about and re-read it while I'm there!

8. Translate a book. Writing my own book isn't really 'bookish' and it's more a given, rather than a goal. It'd be on my 'writing bucket list.' But I do want to translate a book, if only for me.

9. Have my own personal library. Like an Umberto Eco-ey library, with more unread books waiting for every book I finish. Ideally it'd be a combination of The Library (without the Vashta Nerada), the Unseen Library (with the Librarian, ook!) and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

10. Have a literary-named pet. Like a cat named Dickens, and a dog named Laska.

(Edit: Rebecca stopped by with a link to the original 50 Bookish Things bucket list, so I decided to expand my list to as many as I can think of. You can also add your posts to the fabulous original link list, even as they are!)

11. Visit obscure little bookshops in the world, buy one book from each.

12. Watch all the film adaptations of every book I have read and will. Watch the live performances of all plays I read.

13. Read every book and writer I’ve ever been recommended. Since I don’t know many too book worms in real life, hearty recommendations are rare and I wouldn’t want to miss out on any!

14. Buy bookish trinkets like Tiffany Aching’s horse necklace or Luna Lovegood’s radish earrings. I’d love love those little book-shaped lockets. I’d love to own bags and tees with my favourite quotes or scenes from books.

15. Read an entire epic. Just the idea is intimidating, but be it a Hindu (Ramayana or Mahabharata) one or otherwise (possibly Homer) I'd love to have read an epic poem, if only to be able to openly gloat over it. "You know, when I was reading the Illiad..."

16. Sit in a café and read an entire book cover to cover. There are so many bookstores with cafes and cafes with bookstores. Considering how much I loved reading a book from start to end at the library, I’d like to try this as well.

17. Read one book from every genre there is. This is aiming high, considering there are so many cross-genres, but I’d like to attempt as many as I can, apart from the usual fantasy-horror-historical fiction that I’m stuck in.

18. Visit a rare book dealer. 

Now, these are all I can think of. But whenever I think of anything, I'll be sure to add it here.

Which bookish things are you dying to do?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Big Driver & Fair Extension (from Full Dark, No Stars) by Stephen King + a few links


First of all, I think Full Dark, No Stars is right up there with the bests of Stephen King. Not for the first time, he's proved that ghosts don't have to be translucent white spirits that lurk in and around abandoned houses. These are stories about the terrible frightening ghosts in our minds. 

I read and reviewed 1922, the first novella, last week. I had to wait an entire week before I could read another King. I don't see myself reading the last two stories quite just yet, either. Not till I'm done digesting these.

Big Driver: This is the second story in Full Dark, No Stars, a roughly 130-page novella. When Tess Jean, a mystery writer, is raped and dumped on the side of a road stuffed in a pipe, she plots revenge against the giant of a man who's destroyed her life. Big Driver is the owner of Red Hawk Trucking and Tess, haunted by his comically nightmarish image, sets out to kill him.

This story is creepy, and as booksaremything had commented on my review of 1922, very difficult to read. The end seems convoluted and a bit ludicrous, but that apart, to me, the story makes sense. What happens to her drives the cozy mystery writer crazy. Nightmares, insecurity, voices in her head - the whole thing. Contemplating murder has been her profession, she knows revenge is not the answer, a whole part of her knows she should go to the authorities instead; but that's the old Tess. The new Tess dismisses the idea of police, wondering "What's in it for me?" Disclosing her attack is out of the question. She imagines people's reactions to her rape.

One thing she did know was that she would get the sort of nationwide coverage every writer would like when she publishes a book and no writer wants when she had been raped, robbed and left for dead. She could visualize someone raising a hand during Question Time and asking, "Did you in any way encourage him?"
That was ridiculous, and even in her current state Tess knew it... but also knew that if this came out, someone would raise his or her hand to ask, "Are you going to write about this?"
And what would she say? What could she say?
Nothing, Tess thought. I would run off the stage with my hands over my ears. 

The back cover of the book asks you "What tips someone over the edge to commit a crime?" Big Driver answers the question in blatant uncompromising detail. And unlike the evil narrator of 1922, Tess doesn't ask you to understand her, she doesn't beg for sympathy, she knows you would hold her guilty, but she simply doesn't care about you.

She was too tired to consider what might or might not be her moral responsibility. She'd work on that part later, if God meant to grant her a later... it seemed He might. But not on this deserted road where any set of approaching lights might have her rapist behind it. 
Hers. He was hers now.

Big Driver, which I read in one horrific sitting, made me feel ashamed of the world we live in.

Fair Extension: Fair Extension is a short story, the third in this collection. When Streeter is puking on the side of the road, the cancer now making his life more miserable than ever, he spots a pudgy man sitting on the other side, with a sign that reads 'Fair Extension'. Elvid turns out to be a strange man who offers people all kinds of extensions, hair, height and in Streeter's case, life extension. Elvid sells Streeter fifteen more years. But there's always a catch and it goes something like:

You have to do the dirty to someone else, if the dirty is to be lifted from you. 

Streeter confesses to Elvid that he hates his best friend for life, Tom Goodhugh and has no qualms transferring the 'dirty' to him. Streeter expects Tom to get cancer, and is quite okay with it, but it turns out that he's destroyed his life in quite other ways. With every new extra day that Streeter lives, something goes terribly wrong in his friends once perfect life, much to Streeter's delight.

This story is ridiculous to the point of funny, it is written the sort of dry dark humour that is characteristic of SK, anyway. It's about greed and ruthlessness of the kind that only a Stephen King story can pull off. What I love the most is that Fair Extension is set in Derry, Maine. Remember Derry? The last time I visited it was with Jake Epping.

~

Now to the links I promised:

Last week Anne Rice posted a link to OpenCulture's Stephen King's Top 20 Rules for Writers, which you should have a look at, even if you have already read the fabulous On Writing. And if you haven't read it, just what are you waiting for?

In related stuff, I found a list made by SK of 96 Books For Aspiring Writers to Read. I've read: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Hannibal by Thomas Harris, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Harry Potter by J K Rowling Parts 1, 2, and 3. Six: which must be pathetic by Stephen King standards. How many have you read?

Flavorwire posted this amazing thing yesterday: Artists Pay Tribute to the Work of Stephen King in Exhibition 'King for a Day'. God, I would have loved to be there. The artwork is gorgeous and interesting, some based on the movies, and worth checking out.
~

So far, even though I haven't got around to reading a lot, King's March hosted by Wendy and Rory has been awesome, and I've enjoyed reading all the posts by fellow SK maniacs. I do hope to finish Full Dark, No Stars and at least a couple of stories from Different Seasons in this last week of the month, can't say that I actually can. What have you been reading?

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Dead Place by Stephen Booth

The Dead Place is the sixth book in the Ben Cooper and Diane Fry mystery series by Stephen Booth (after One Last Breath and followed by Scared to Live.) That being said, having done it, I'd say it's okay to read some of the books out of order as standalones; provided you read the first book Black Dog, which is fabulous, by the way. I can't recommend this series enough.

Summary: "This killing will be a model of perfection. An accomplishment to be proud of. And it could be tonight or maybe next week. But it will be soon. I promise."

The anonymous phone calls indicate a disturbed mind with an unnatural passion for death. Cooper and Fry are hoping against hope that the caller is just a harmless crank having some sick fun. But the clues woven through his disturbing messages point to the possibility of an all-too-real crime... especially when a woman vanishes from an office parking garage.

But it’s the mystery surrounding an unidentified female corpse left exposed in the woods for over a year that really has the detectives worried. Whoever she might have been, the dead woman is linked to the mystery caller, whose description of his twisted death rituals matches the bizarre manner in which the body was found. And the mystery only deepens when Cooper obtains a positive I.D. and learns that the dead woman was never reported missing and that she definitely wasn't murdered. As the killer draws them closer into his confidence, Ben and Diane learn everything about his deadly obsessions except what matters most: his identity and the identity of his next victim...

My thoughts: The last time I was this addicted to a book series was Harry Potter, and considering the Potter-fanatic that I am, that's saying something. The thing I love the most about these Cooper and Fry books, which may be classified as police procedural, is that they are all about the characters. Like Stephen King, Booth manages to dive right into people's minds and build true to life characters. You don't always like them nor agree with them, especially not Diane Fry, but that's what makes them click. Ben Cooper is, of course, easy to be fond of, it's great to be inside his mind, read his thoughts and his instincts and how he feels for the victims. But even with Fry, he makes a good partnership (okay, it's not good, more like challenging), and together they're unlike your usual awkward-tension-turns-to-love pairs.

The Dead Place, not surprisingly, is about death. It's about the morbid fascination that so many people seem to have with dying, the book is also about the history of death or death in history, sarcophagi and cremation and all that. The Dead Place, on a more positive note, is about dealing with loss and facing death on a personal and professional front. It takes you to grieving families in various stages of shock and denial, and at the same time, gives you a glimpse into the coolly detached workings of a funeral home. Death is a part of life and in The Dead Place, Booth gives it an emotional depth rarely achieved in murder mysteries.

The thing that makes The Dead Place work, above all, is the atmosphere. The picturesque imagery of the northern English countryside is rich with detail. You just know he knows what he's writing about, and you find yourself right there inside the books. It's the unique combination of a swift plot with brooding, often meandering writing, quite unlike the usual action packed thrillers out there, that makes The Dead Place so special.

I would recommend this book to anyone who (as the dedication of the book goes) has ever had to deal with death.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

1922 (from Full Dark No Stars) by Stephen King


(I love this book already, and my new Stephen King bookmark, which I'm going to take with me everywhere I go. This review is for King's March.)

The back cover of the book asks us a question, hinting towards the nature of the whole collection of stories: What tips someone over the edge to commit a crime? For a Nebraska farmer, the turning point comes when his wife threatens to sell off the family homestead.

That is 1922: An old man's confession to murdering his wife with the help of his fourteen year old son, and then dumping her body in their own well. Don't worry, these aren't spoilers. It's never so straightforward with Stephen King. 1922 is about what comes after the crime. As King succinctly puts it: 

"I discovered something that night that most people never have to learn: murder is sin, murder is damnation (surely of one's own mind and spirit, even if the atheists are right and there is no afterlife), but murder is also work."

The worst is never over, he goes on to say, the dead are never truly gone. Once Farmer Wilfred James convinced his son Henry "Hank" into becoming a willing participant in Arlette's murder, he changed the boy's life. The plan that sounded simple enough ended up more difficult than the pair could have imagined. A black spot in their lives that neither was able to fully wash off in the following years. As James narrates, eight years later, what happened in 1922, you see the extent of evil in people. Underneath all his guilt for what he did to himself and his son, past the fear of his wife's vengeful ghost, you still see that he blames his wife for what happened, that he believes his crime was justified, under the circumstances. He feels no real repentance. And the freakiest thing is, he knows it - he knows himself.

1922 shows you how thin the line between fantasy and reality is. It won't take long for your worst nightmare to come to life, for you to bring it to life and once that's done, it will take an eternity to put it back to sleep, if ever. On that ill fated night, Wilfred James raised something, the demon inside him perhaps, that tore at him and then ate away Hank's little boy innocence. "The Conniving Man" James calls him in his confession; the stranger inside every man. Even the pale little boy had evil lurking in him, which his father unleashed: clearly, when it took just a slap from Mama to make him want to help Poppa finish her off. 

But the truth came back to haunt the both of them. It hit Hank in the form of guilt, regret, overwhelming fear and perhaps confusion over his own actions and he dealt with it by blaming his father, rightly so. His escape with his girlfriend, from his father's farm, led to the bitter end that had already been written for him on that night in 1922. And the truth haunted Wilfred in a more literal sense: his dead wife's broken corpse accompanied him throughout his life, along with the army of rats nesting in her rotting body. Driven crazy by the ghosts of his past, now holed up in a hotel in Nebraska, Wilfred James writes a confession to his sins, documenting the whole truth as he sees it. 

"This is a ghost story, but the ghost was there even before the woman it belonged to died.
'All right, Poppa. We'll... we'll send her to Heaven.' Henry's face brightened at the thought. How hideous that seems to be now, especially when I think of how he finished up.
'It will be quick,' I said. Man and boy I've slit nine-score hogs' throats, and I thought it would be. But I was wrong."

Like in every small town story he's written, King describes the setting in detail. The small town people and their small town talk and small town minds. A murder committed just because the farmer didn't want to move to the city. And then you realize it's not because of the setting. Take a twisted ego and put it anywhere and the story would play out in the same way. 1922 makes you sick and there is no redeeming glow of hope at the end. It is not a romanticized version of a killing. You end wishing you hadn't read the story and knowing you couldn't not have. There's little good in this novella but it's the ruthless honesty that we all need to take once in a while, chew on and swallow. The disintegration of Wilfred's mind, his gradual loss of sanity and his self inflicted justice form a lesson in morality like no other. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Top Ten All Time Favourite Horror Books


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted over at The Broke and The Bookish. I can't believe it's been a little more than a year since I participated in one of these.

It's been a while since I revisited horror. The last book I read was Doctor Sleep (it has made it to the list.) I don't like the stigma associated with the genre; the "Stephen-King-is-my-favourite-author" gets a whole range of judgmental reactions from "Really?-So-you-don't-like-classic-literature.", or a simple "But-he-has-no-'literary-value'." or "I-don't-read-genre-fiction." or the classic, "Oh-you-don't-seem-like-that-type-of-person." Well, I am, just deal with it. Plus, whoever says Stephen King is just a horror writer hasn't read the right books.

This is a list of my Top Five All Time Favourite Horror Books, though I have a vague feeling I have already made this list on the blog. Anyway, a few of the titles link to reviews.

1. Dracula by Bram Stoker - as my favourite gaslamp fantasy

2. The Shining and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King - as the first and latest Stephen King I read, both more emotional than they appear

3. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H. P. Lovecraft - as my introduction to Lovecraft, macabre and weird fiction

4. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury - for the musings over coming-of-age and the lessons of life and death

5. The Terror by Dan Simmons - for being wonderfully evocative and steeped in history and mythology

That being said, these aren't the scariest, most horrifying horror books I've ever read. So here's another list; my Top Five All Time Scariest Books

6. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty - All the spidery-crawli... no, no, I can't relive it.

7. IT by Stephen King - One word, clowns.

8. Ghost Story by Peter Straub - How could anything be scarier than fear taking a physical form?

9. The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker - My first Barker, I wasn't prepared for the gore.

10. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson - The strange knocking on doors, the holding a hand in the dark only to find out...*shudders*

The two books that get a special mention in the second list are The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis - neither needed horror of the supernatural kind to be mind-numbingly scary.

*Edit: Also add all of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, though I don't exactly like them for being horror, but didn't you hear? The Brat Prince is back! That calls for a lengthy re-read.

So which are your favourite horror books? Or your scariest?

Monday, March 10, 2014

She Reads South Asia

If you know me, you know I'd decided to spend all of last year discovering Indian authors, because I'd amazingly never got around to reading any. 2013 brought me some of my now favourite writers and books: Vikram Chandra, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai. 

When it occurred to me just how unnecessarily judgmental and uninformed I was about South Asian fiction, I also saw many other avid readers who shared my prejudice. After more than a year of reading already popular authors like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri to getting to know a whole bunch of promising new writers like Ismita Tandon Dhankher, I've realized I'd been missing out on the most wonderful reads all this while.

                   

Inspired by 2014 being celebrated as the Year of Reading Women and building on the success of the #ReadWomen2014 campaign, SheReads South Asia will reach out to women readers, encouraging them to support, discover and engage with women writers and their works. For readers, this will be a platform to express their views, discover new books and engage with authors. For writers, this is a place to talk about their views, their craft and their books and to engage with their readers.

The She Reads South Asia initiative is a wonderful step in bringing South Asian women writers and readers closer. As a reader, I definitely want be a part of this and so should you! So what can you do? 
  1. You can start by spreading the word on various social media. Like the She Reads South Asia Facebook page. Follow them on Twitter @SheReadsSA
  2. Bloggers: let your readers know about this initiative, encourage them to follow the conversations, join in the effort. Show off these pretty bookmarks on your page!
  3. Read and enjoy South Asian writers, because, after all, that's what this is all about!
Don't forget to subscribe to the She Reads South Asia newsletter for recommendations of must-read South Asian women writers.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Women's Day: Memorable Women in Fiction

It being Women's Day (Happy Women's Day!), I was thinking about the most memorable female characters in fiction. I don't mean just the strong-women stereotypes, but the loving wives, the doting mothers, passionate lovers and great friends, who just happen to be women, not to mention pretty freaking awesome. I don't think there needs to be a day to celebrate them, but since it's already happening, I made another list - sort of.

When it comes to strong women who are crucial to the plot, the first character I thought of was Mina Murray-Harker from Dracula by Bram Stoker. I'm talking about book Mina, who (*spoiler!*) does not stay under the curse. She's intelligent, modern, brave and determined in the face of one of the most seductive dangers!

The next female character to come to my mind was not intended to be good. Carrie White from Carrie by Stephen King went from being alone and misunderstood to evil through the course of the story. She was hated and feared; and by caving in to everything she faced, giving up and letting the bullies turn her into a monster, she was not the bravest or the strongest. She was certainly memorable, though. The fact is, anyone who has had trouble in high school (and who hasn't?) can relate to Carrie's twisted ideas of revenge. And while that's not okay, of course; she does remain an impeccably written character, that lonely girl you thank God you're not; someone you neither love nor despise, only pity.

My favourite Discworld woman is Esmerelda, Granny Weatherwax, of course. The most powerful witch you've ever met, who doesn't like to show off. Minimalistic, confident and unselfish, she's an ideal witch and a great, though not very womanly in the popular sense, character. Another favourite is Susan Sto-Helit from the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. She is Death's granddaughter. Need I say more?

Another favourite, who'd make it to every memorable literary women list, is Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It is said Jane Austen has created many impressionable female characters. I wouldn't know, seeing as Pride and Prejudice is her only book I've read. For me, what makes Elizabeth Bennet a special character is her journey - she starts out as a stereotype and ends up as a person. Also: she's witty.

A strong female character I love is Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Her perseverance is her obvious strength, but I do admire her whole personality, loner tendencies included; thought not in Hannibal, where (*spoiler!*) she does some quite creepy and twisted things herself. 

The obvious picks from the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling would be Hermione Granger or Luna Lovegood. Perhaps even Molly Weasley. For me, the stand-out female character in Harry Potter has always been Lily Evans-Potter. If you think about it, the whole series revolves around her - (again, *spoiler!*) the boy who lived wouldn't have lived had it not been for his mother, not to mention, Snape's redemption in its entirety is about his undying love for Lily. And she's smart, interesting, funny, she sees the good in people, but she's not the sort of person who'd let herself be pushed around, either.

The last literary character I can think of is Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion by G. B. Shaw. The feisty Cockney flower girl also probably makes it to every such list. 

Some younger bookish women I love are Tiffany Aching from the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, Matilda from Matilda by Roald Dahl, Sam from American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Abra Stone from Doctor Sleep by Stephen King.

Wading through my book shelves, I could find another couple of characters, but since the title is 'memorable', that would beat the purpose! 

I have more memorable TV women than I can list; with a second-place tie between Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, Donna Noble from Doctor Who and Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the first place will obviously be taken by Violet Crawley, the dowager countess, from Downton Abbey; because, well, it's Maggie Smith. 

Who makes it to your list of the most memorable fictional women?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Fiction (from Too Much Happiness) by Alice Munro


I read Dimension by Alice Munro a little less than a month ago - after reading about her at Viktoria's Bookshelf. It's a haunting story published, like many others by Munro, in the New Yorker. When I realized it was part of a collection, ironically titled Too Much Happiness, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. Dimension is the first story of the collection. Since I have linked to it above, I won't spoil it for you with a summary. Read it, it's worth your time.

The second story in Too Much Happiness is called Fiction. This is another gem, and though I've still only read two stories by Munro, I can tell you she's one of the most talented authors I've ever come across and certainly the best short story writer. Like Dimension, Fiction has everything you expect from a novel compressed to fit into a few dozen pages - plot, style, a set of wonderful characters and a staggering climax. The story sucks you in and leaves you awestruck by its complex simplicity. It's incredible how interesting the most commonplace things can seem.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Joyce and Jon, two of the smartest students at an urban high school in Ontario, get married, drop out of college and leave behind their bright futures. Joyce ends up as a music teacher at a local school, and Jon becomes a carpenter. Then the story, which starts out in a calm and happy place, takes an abrupt turn as Jon has an affair with his apprentice Edie and leaves Joyce. Pity is replaced by reluctant derision as you watch Joyce throw her life away, grow bitter. Trying to get him back, she goes so far as to stalking Edie and Jon.

Years later, you see Joyce contentedly married to Matt, a rich sixty-something amateur violinist. At Matt's birthday party, among a group of connections, close and distant, Joyce spots a young woman she vaguely recognizes. She happens to be a writer, from the same school that Joyce taught at all those years ago. On an impulse, Joyce buys her book. 

Through a story about a small town music teacher, which hits far too close to home, Joyce discovers how her obsession with Jon and his new wife affected Edie's little child. Joyce then attempts to reconcile with the now the writer, presumably the daughter, now grown-up. The encounter exposes Joyce as an unreliable narrator and goes to show Munro's understanding of people, how they function, how they react. It describes the fictions people spin in their minds, how a life inevitably revolves solely around itself, truths no one would willingly confess to.

(End of spoilers.)

What I love about Munro's writing is that every word counts and every line is loaded with meaning. Fiction is not a one dimensional story. There are so many themes, so many characters - each as important as the next. Munro manages to recount a whole life in just one short story and narrates it seamlessly. It's almost incredible how involved it keeps you, how deeply every event affects you. And the best part is, the writing which, though never blatantly funny, does make you chuckle every so often.

Joyce has never understood this business of lining up to get a glimpse of the author and then going away with a stranger’s name written in your book.
She doesn't even know if she will read the book. She has a couple of good biographies on the go at the moment that she is sure are more to her taste than this will be.
How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.

(...says one of the greatest short story writers alive, you've got to love that.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Words That Make Me Pick Up A Book

Over the years I've come to pride myself at picking out exactly the right kind of books at a book sale or from the library. Right for me, of course. It's either, of course, that I've heard about the author or the book, or the blurbs decide it - any book that has a prologue, introduction or recommendation from one of my favourite authors has to be my kind of book. I've also come to notice, though, that I end up picking up books that have particular words in their description. These are some of those words.

1. voyage / ship / boats / expedition:

Books set on ships fascinate me SO much. I don't know just when this fascination began, but I have many favourites crossing genres; from The Terror by Dan Simmons, This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson to The Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh and Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch. I just ordered George R. R. Martin's Fevre Dream. And perched on my shelf waiting to be read is The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. Water makes a great setting - thrilling, mysterious and isolated.

2. magic

Unless the book cover screams paranormal young adult fantasy (we all know how to spot them) the word magic makes a book irresistible. And for all the misreads (you know, picking up books I was too old for or books that ended up being soppy romances that had very little to do with quirky magicians) this word led me to some of my all-time favourites. The single word made me pick up the huge Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell at the library, and it sufficed to make me read The Chronicles of Chrestomanci followed by everything Diana Wynne Jones ever wrote. I even read an interesting non-fiction on magic called A General Theory of Magic by Marcel Mauss, and ooh... wait, you probably get my point.

3. carnival / circus / clown

Creepy, I know. Which books did I pick up because of these words? IT by Stephen King, then because apparently I still hadn't learnt to be afraid of clowns I read Joyland by Stephen King. I also picked up The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, The Clown by Heinrich Böll. They weren't all as great or what I expected, but the words still intrigue me enough to want to pick up the book. Take Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen for instance - it doesn't sound like my sort of book, but I do want to read it just for the word 'circus'!

4. mythology / retelling

I know you can necessarily club these two, but I haven't read any fairy tale retellings and I don't think I'd ever want to - so I suppose I like retellings of myths and books about mythology in general. It all started when I found A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong at the library. I loved it. It's the first book in the Canongate Myth Series. Oddly, I've only read one other book in that series - Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A. S. Byatt, but the words have led me to many other treasured reads. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis and Kassandra by Christa Wolf are two favourites. I only recently picked up Ransom by David Malouf.

5. cat / animals / pets

I've read some really good and really strange stories because of this word. The Unadulterated Cat by Terry Pratchett, White Cat by Holly Black, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, I Am A Cat by Soseki Natsume. I even read this weird Enid Blyton story called The Pantomime Cat when I was a kid that still freaks me out. I do want to read Doris Lessing's and Paul Gallico's apparently really apt books on cats.
I picked up some of my all-time favourite books solely because they star animals though, from Life of Pi by Yann Martel to Watership Down by Richard Adams. So I guess the words that I look for are animals or pets!

Are there any particular words that make you instantly pick up a book? 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Blindness by José Saramago


STORY: An epidemic of blindness. What a horrible concept. At the very start of Blindness by José Saramago, a man goes blind, waiting in his car at a traffic signal. One moment he has perfect sight, and the next, all he can see is light, pure whiteness. No explanations given. Then, we see the blindness spread like wildfire. The first blind man is taken home by a helpful man, only to be taken advantage of. The apparently kind helper, who ends up stealing the first blind man's car, meets his fate a while later: when he turns blind too. The first blind man, meanwhile, pays his ophthalmologist a visit. The doctor is confused - there is nothing wrong with his eyes, no medical reason why he should be blind. That evening, the doctor discusses his strange patient with his wife. After dinner, while pondering over the case, the doctor goes blind too. All around the city, patients who had been in the clinic with the first blind man lose their sight.

The doctor informs the authorities, who once they get over their disbelief, are quick to act. Quarantine. When the ambulance arrives to take the doctor to the quarantine, the doctor's wife is unable to bear separating from her husband. She claims to have also lost her sight and accompanies him to the asylum for the blind. Through the eyes of the one woman who can see, we see the society of blind, as the people descent into savagery, akin to those in Lord of the Flies, but adults, with no one coming to rescue them.

STYLE: To give you an idea of the style of writing, let me quote something the doctor's wife, the woman who sees, says.

Now we are all equal regarding good and evil, please, don't ask me what good and what evil are, we knew what it was each time we had to act when blindness was an exception, what is right and what is wrong are simply different ways of understanding our relationships with the others, not that which we have with ourselves, one should not trust the latter, forgive this moralising speech, you do not know, you cannot know, what it means to have eyes in a world in which everyone else is blind, I am not a queen, no, I am simply the one who was born to see this horror, you can feel it, I both feel and see it.

No question marks, no quotation marks, not exclamation points, no full stops and almost never any indents - that's how the book is written. It is difficult to get accustomed to, difficult to make head or tail of. Take away the order in the writing and we end up, like the people in the book, with a mess that the best of us find difficult to wade through. Like a blind man groping in the dark for familiarity and meaning, we stumble through the labyrinth of words, feeling out sentences, mentally inserting punctuation, trying to make some coherence of the jumble. The style is genius and makes reading Blindness an incredible experience in itself. 

CHARACTERS: The characters have no names.

Fear can cause blindness, said the girl with dark glasses, Never a truer word, that could not be truer, we were already blind the moment we turned blind, fear struck us blind, fear will keep us blind, Who is speaking, asked the doctor, A blind man, replied a voice, just a blind man, for that is all we have here. Then the old man with the black eyepatch asked, How many blind persons are needed to make a blindness, No one could provide the answer.

There you go, that's them. The main characters of this book are: the doctor, the doctor's wife, the first blind man, the first blind man's wife, the girl with dark glasses, the man with the black eyepatch, the boy with the squint. No names, just physical descriptions, like identification markers. And they're as evocative as character names can get. You can just picture them by their names. It's convenient; except, irony: they're all blind. While they don't bother with names or outward appearances, all we can know them by is the outer shells. Again: genius. The book plays tricks on you, and it's difficult not to let them get to you. 

THEMES: I haven't even come close to figuring it all out. I'm still processing, having finished the book only a couple of days ago. For me, the book is about what it means to be human. Watching society as we know it collapse is horrific; but what makes you keep reading is the hope. The little gestures of love, affection and kindness; the old man with the black eyepatch finding love, the first blind man sympathising the man who stole his car. Their white blindness makes the people see the world in a new light, see things for what they truly are. The reason for the blindness hardly matters, and it's never touched upon why that one woman (the doctor's wife) remains sighted; it is understood that they always were unseeing, even when not blind. The book is harrowing, brutally honest and can sweep you up in its wisdom and leave you feeling exhausted and in awe. 

It's also not for everybody. There is violence. Gory details about things that you'd rather pretend didn't exist are thrust in your face. To read this book, you can't afford to be blind to what's right there in front of you, the book won't allow you that luxury. Blindness by José Saramago is not a book you can read in a matter of days, or grasp in one read. It's an effort, but in the end I think it's worth it. It's the first book to actually make me cry.