Thursday, May 29, 2014

Love Kills by Ismita Tandon

Summary: (from AmazonYou won’t live a boring life if you’re named after a whisky (more or less). Meet Johnny Will, named thus by an alcoholic father who died under mysterious circumstances. Johnny is the founder of Thy Will - a de-addiction centre for the rich and the famous that uses very questionable methods - and the fiancé of Mira Kermani, daughter of the richest man in town.

The beautiful, young Mira dies of an overdose of morphine. Officer Ray is convinced that Johnny is the killer. Johnny’s assistant Sera, who secretly loves him, and his half-brother Zac are working hard to protect him from the officer. Or are they? Could Aunt Adele’s hunger for what was rightfully her son’s inheritance have driven her to murder? Or is the murderer an unhappy patient?  From the author of the disturbing and controversial Jacob Hills, an unputdownable story of crime and passion in the hill-station town of Monele.

My thoughts: I read this book in one sitting, and how could I have not, when it is so engaging? The author has not fallen into the usual whodunit trap, where the convoluted characters and contrived storylines strive to keep us utterly confused, but in the process fail to sound real. Love Kills has a realistic plot, and because it is so believable, and the characters so gray, the story affects us like few others. From Johnny Wills and his malicious aunt Adele to the totally smitten Sera and Officer Ray who is irrationally convinced of Johnny's guilt - each person has his own faults - we find ourselves siding with no one and realize soon enough how everyone, no matter how well we know them, has secrets that are better off hidden. While it's difficult to guess who the killer is, and the author expertly keeps us on our toes, scanning for clues; it's even more difficult to figure out who the good guy is or if there is one.

Johnny's de-addiction center is reminiscent of the harrowing Stephen King short story, Quitters, Inc. Love Kills by Ismita Tandon drives home the idea that sometimes we don't know what's best for ourselves, sometimes we need to be slapped across the face to be brought to our senses. Inversely, though, however convinced we may be that we're helping someone, it's often best to stay put, and let people run their own lives. Guilt, resentment, obsession, misplaced concern; the story makes us question the simple feelings that could easily multiply into unrepentant cruelty. Admittedly, parts of the story are a little over-dramatized but that's to be expected, from a scandalous theme.

The authors uses her setting well, and the hill-station town of Monele is inextricably woven into the characters' life stories. Even in a couple of hundred pages, the book manages to have a large scope. In a sense, the novel is generation-spanning, and shows us how deeply family and the social-cage influence a child, and how our passions and failings affect not only those around us, but go on to seal the fate of the generations yet to come. 

The book reads like one written by a seasoned writer. Those who've read Ismita Tandon's previous books are surely familiar with her atypical style and Love Kills is that style at its best. The writing is pithy, and funny and strewn throughout the book are the most wonderful poems. Which brings me to the author's amazingly frequent, tongue-in-cheek references to herself, in the garb of Officer Ray's poetic persona a.k.a 'A Lesser Known Poet.' 

The myriad points of view, each chapter a first person narration by one of the characters, do initially seem jarring. As do the tenses: the story is narrated in the present tense, but there are moments when the flitting timelines prove somewhat hard to follow. But what the many viewpoints provide, is a chance to see each individual closely. Besides, the viewpoints bring us the chapter-title illustrations, and you know what, why settle for a description when we could have an actual picture? --->

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the story:

The whole world wants to raise a family, no matter where their own life is headed. Buy a fancy cradle, tiny clothes, expensive toys, paint the nursery and potty train, it's all fine, but what are they going to teach the kid when their own head is so full of fears and lies? How easy it is to make a baby and then screw up with its head! Passing on the confusion and chaos to the child, till the new seed is infected by the old.
"It can't be! She would have told me. We were very close," he said with the crumbling confidence of a man who had reared a child with love and affection only to lose her to an unforeseen enemy, adulthood.
That is how the world lives, in charades of loving families, no one acknowledging that all is not well and never will be. A beautiful patchwork of lies is what we create to fit in.
'Why wash our dirty linen in public?' She spoke with utmost dignity, the ravages of time and  alcohol had not dimmed her sense of society and social stigma.
I wondered then whether she too was to blame - this silently suffering wife who has witnessed it all, fearing for her husband's reputation.

Let these snippets convince you not to dismiss Love Kills by Ismita Tandon as just another mystery. Grab your copy on Amazon!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

"Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he would fly to his new life in his old body. The doctors had shaken their heads and left, even his daughters had stopped telling him he was about to get well. He put his head down on the scant gold in his great draughty under-cave, struggling to keep still and draw breath. He had only little time left, to affect everything that was to come after. Perhaps it would be an hour, perhaps less. He would be glad to leave the pains of flesh, but he wished he had not so much to regret."

Summary: Five dragon siblings have gathered at their father's deathbed, for a goodbye and later, to eat his body, as is custom. While Blessed Penn hears his father's startlingly scandalous final confession, the maidens Selendra and Haner wonder about their foggy future with no guardian. Avan is curious about his share of the inheritance and Berend, the eldest sister, visits with her children and her pompous dominating husband Illustrious Daverak, who isn't concerned about anything but his share of dragon-meat, which gives one a renewed vitality. But the siblings need both the strength and the honour of eating their father. When Daverak eats more than his intended share, Avan seeks revenge, or justice... in court! Which is not to say that dragons don't duel, it's just, Avan is more proper... and, more importantly, much smaller.

In the world of dragons, when a suitor approaches a female dragon, she blushes, and her golden scales turn pink. A maiden is not a maiden anymore when she is coloured a bridal pink. So when, the next day, a male-dragon places his claw on Selendra's shoulder, she blushes, even though she refuses his brazen proposal. While she fixes her blush with a potion, Selendra is unsure if she can ever turn pink again. As Selendra and Haner, who are clutch-mates, face going their separate ways - Selendra to live with Blessed Penn's family and Haner to live with Berend and Daverak - they make a pact: since they have only enough dowry for one, neither will marry unless her sister's approves of her husband. But, of course, they both fall inevitably in love.

My thoughts: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton is a Victorian-style novel about class politics, religion, money and endless proposals, a Pride and Prejudice with dragons, as a blurb appropriately calls it. And it's brilliant. The ways of the dragons and their intricate customs, so close to ours and yet so different, the genius exaggeration, reminded me of the rabbit culture of Watership Down by Richard Adams. But it's a much more proper society in Tooth and Claw: they have their city businesses and country farms, new churches and secret old churches, they have trains and carriages, because servants and parsons have their wings bound and cannot fly, they have dragons working for the liberation of those in servitude and they have the self important men, who feel it's their right and duty to decide just what the silly women do. It's a horrible world. But then there are luncheons and parties, and a lot of gold and treasure, which the fifty-foot dragons lay down in their caves to sleep on, the dragons wear hats and bows and go to school, which is hilarious. As are the chapter titles, where the narrator keeps track of the number of proposals, deathbeds and confessions.

The characters, especially the women, are well written and realistic - Berend seems to have forgotten to be herself, while Selendra is rebelliously self assured and my favourite was Penn's wife Felin, who is a supportive wife and mother, but doesn't hesitate to go out of her way to do something she knows is right. It's clear her compromises serve better than either extreme, Berend or Selendra.

I like that the author hasn't tried to impose any views on us, only giving us glimpses into her world. It's a nice story, with a very happy ending you know you're going to get, even though Walton throws in a few twists and surprises. Even the most difficult misunderstandings and fights are smoothed out and everything falls into place at the end. It makes you smile, but because the book is so small, it does also make you wish there were more, a deeper look at the problem, a less coincidental resolution. It seems like a first book in a series, almost incomplete, and so far there hasn't been any sequel.

It's not a perfect book, it could have been better, but Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton still makes an engaging and amusing read! And I do want to try another book by the author. 

This was my seventh (or was it sixth?) read for the Once Upon a Time challenge.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Top Ten Books that Make Me Laugh Out Loud

Last Sunday we discussed Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at the book club (yes, on Towel Day, though I do still prefer the glorious 25th of May as Wear the Lilac Day, because well, Discworld trumps everything.) But discussing Adams' zany brilliance was fun and since humour has been on my mind, I decided to list the Top Ten Books that Make Me Laugh Out Loud for this week's Top Ten Tuesday Freebie!

Clicking on the titles will take you to the Goodreads pages. Instead of posting summaries, I've posted some of my favourite dialogues - let me just say, though, these are all books I'd recommend you to read. Delightful, witty (some more than others) and the kind that deserve to be taken a lot more seriously than you'd think!

1. Good Omens - The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won't tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.

2. The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett

Poets have tried to describe Ankh-Morpork. They have failed. Perhaps it's the sheer zestful vitality of the place, or maybe it's just that a city with a million inhabitants and no sewers is rather robust for poets, who prefer daffodils and no wonder. So let's just say that Ankh-Morpork is as full of life as an old cheese on a hot day, as loud as a curse in a cathedral, as bright as an oil slick, as colourful as a bruise and as full of activity, industry, bustle and sheer exuberant busyness as a dead dog on a termite mound.

3. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 

Arthur: If I asked you where the hell we were, would I regret it? 
Ford: We're safe. 
Arthur: Oh good. 
Ford: We're in a small galley cabin in one of the spaceships of the Vogon Constructor Fleet. 
Arthur: Ah, this is obviously some strange use of the word safe that I wasn't previously aware of.

4. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

My tooth-brush is a thing that haunts me when I’m travelling, and makes my life a misery.  I dream that I haven’t packed it, and wake up in a cold perspiration, and get out of bed and hunt for it.  And, in the morning, I pack it before I have used it, and have to unpack again to get it, and it is always the last thing I turn out of the bag; and then I repack and forget it, and have to rush upstairs for it at the last moment and carry it to the railway station, wrapped up in my pocket-handkerchief.

5. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Authors, she soon decided, were probably best met within the pages of their novels, and were as much creatures of the reader's imagination as the characters in their books. Nor did they seem to think one had done them a kindness by reading their writings. Rather they had done one the kindness by writing them.

6. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

There have been five great kisses since 1642 B.C. when Saul and Delilah Korn's inadvertent discovery swept across Western civilization. (Before then couples hooked thumbs.) And the precise rating of kisses is a terribly difficult thing, often leading to great controversy, because although everyone agrees with the formula of affection times purity times intensity times duration, no one has ever been completely satisfied with how much weight each element should receive. But on any system, there are five that everyone agrees deserve full marks. Well, this one left them all behind.

7. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Lady Bracknell: I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.

8. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

She was used to apologizing for her use of language. She had been encouraged to do a lot of that in school. Their English teachers would wince and cover their ears and give them flunking grades and so on whenever they failed to speak like English aristocrats before the First World War. Also: they were told that they were unworthy to speak or write their language if they couldn't love or understand incomprehensible novels and poems and plays about people long ago and far away, such as Ivanhoe.

9. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

10. A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain

There has appeared in our time a particular class of books and articles which I sincerely and solemnly think may be called the silliest ever known among men. They are books showing men how to succeed in everything; they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books. To begin with, of course, there is no such thing as Success. Or, if you like to put it so, there is nothing that is not successful. That a thing is successful merely means that it is; a millionaire is successful in being a millionaire and a donkey in being a donkey. I really think that the people who buy these books have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back.

I had an amazing time making this list. Mostly because I went through all the quotes on each of their Goodreads pages and was laughing all the way through. I'm sure I've missed some and do encourage recommendations. Which books make you literally laugh out loud?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Blue Hand - The Beats in India by Deborah Baker

Allen Ginsberg lay in a sweat-drenched puddle of self-pity. He had so wanted to be a saint, but what was he supposed to suffer for? (...) Could anyone hear him? Saints, sadhus, rishis and all compassionate ones, he begged, "What's to be done with my life which has lost its idea?"

The name Deborah Baker rang vaguely familar until I realized from the dedication that she's the wife of Amitav Ghosh. I spent the whole of yesterday buried in the book. A Blue Hand - The Beats in India by Deborah Baker follows the events leading up to Ginsberg's visit to India and his time spent here, trying to find his spiritual connection and get himself a guru; almost as an escape from the rage of the publication of Howl, 'the epic work that branded him the voice of a generation', which opens:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, 
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, 
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection 
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night,” 

A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker focuses mainly on Allen Ginsberg, his "wife" Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger, and the mystery girl, Hope Savage. Then there are frequent references to William Boroughs, Lucien Carr, Carl Solomon, Herbert Huncke, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. The people they meet in India include, among others, young Bengali poets Sunil Ganguly, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Buddhadeb Bose and various swamis and maharshis. Also described is Indian politics of the time, along with opinions about India from Christopher Columbus to Walt Whitman, right up to Jackie Kennedy's India visit. The Indianisms explored by Ginsberg and his Beat friends include Buddhism, meditation, the idea of Hindus having multiple Gods catered to each character and personality trait, overcoming the fear of death by spending nights alongside funeral pyres and simple spiritual liberation - the accounts both horrific and moving.

The journals and letters condensed down only to the most quotable parts, is of course, what makes the book most accessible and interesting. While I would never have dared to sift through them all myself, I did find myself smiling at bits like: when referring to the God Ganesha and Indian imagination, Ginsberg wrote, "How can da Vinci beat an elephant on a mouse?" At one point, in Dharamshala, while Ginsberg was encouraging a twenty-seven year old Dalai Lama to indulge in psychoactive drugs for heightened visions, Dalai Lama playfully commented, "If you take LSD, can you see what's in that briefcase?" Baker's writing is hardly dry, which makes all the drug induced visions and dreams far more interesting and far less delirious than, say, On the Road in its entirety.

What I loved about the book, and what I imagine was its point was the uncensored, and more importantly, non-arrogant and non-cynical look at India through the eyes of an opinionated but fair outsider. The book paints an unexpectedly accurate portrait of India, that is much better than most Indo-Anglian attempts I've read, which flit between skeptical and overly exoticized.

It is unclear who the intended reader is. The shifting timelines and the myriad of points of view, which cut up and reassemble the narrative, may prove too confusing as an introduction to the Beats. And, the bits of story stuffed into the thin book could be insufficient for a Beats enthusiast, who'd rather read the actual journals. I suppose it's a book for someone (not unlike me) who knows enough not to be bogged down by information and just needs an engaging afternoon read. Unlike your everyday biography, the book has a good flow. I would have liked more pictures, though.

Is it a book to go search for? Perhaps not. But if you happen to come across it, I see no harm in picking it up! For anyone who'd like an outsider's glimpse into India of the sixties, A Blue Hand by Deborah Baker would make a nicely tragicomic read.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

This is the sixth book I read for the Once Upon a Time challenge

This fabulous review by Delia made me want to get this book, and I'm glad I did. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker is a unique read. I've encountered jinnis (or genies and djinns) quite a few times in books, but never a golem like this one. The only other golems I remember reading of are those from the Discworld series; they have scrolls of instructions in their heads, fiery eyes, are huge, sexless and as you see, look somewhat like clay ogres. --->

Not in this book. The story of the Golem begins on a steamship off to New York. The Golem is a woman made out of clay by a corrupt rabbi who dabbles in dark magic, for a man who would be her husband and master. But on the ship, before the husband can do much other than introduce himself, he dies. Alone in New York city, the Golem, who has been built to be an obedient wife, to fulfill her master's desires, finds herself swarmed by the wishes of every person on the ship. That is until, a rabbi who recognizes her for what she is, takes her in and teaches her to control her brutal strength and her need to serve others and survive without a master. Becoming her makeshift caretaker, the rabbi names her Chava, meaning life.

Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of Little Syria, a tinsmith named Arbeely accidentally frees a jinni from a copper flask brought to him for repair. The Jinni has been trapped in the body of a man, an unnaturally handsome man with an iron cuff fixed on his wrist, with no memory of how he came to be in the flask and only the vaguest recollection of a wizard who may have, centuries ago, condemned him to this fate. Reluctantly adopting the name Ahmad, the Jinni begins to come to terms with his limiting existence and form. His ability to work with metal, shaping it to his desire with his bare hands leads him to make a deal with Arbeely, and by the time the close knit society of Little Syria meets Ahmad, he plays the role of a Bedouin apprentice taken on by the tinsmith.

The Golem and the Jinni meet by accident, and discover, instantly, each others' true identities. After the initial fear and discomfort, a mixture of curiousity and loneliness brings them together and they become unlikely friends, exploring New York together, strangely free in the dead of the night. The book is the story of their friendship and how their opposing natures, the Jinni reckless and passionate, the Golem mature and prudent, strike an uncanny balance and helps them understand themselves better. Their conversations and inner struggles, the questions they raise and their almost inevitable arguments resonate with those of ordinary people. The character flaws that we all have are parts of their being, it is the Jinni's nature to be selfish, and the Golem's to be submissive, he doesn't tolerate being tied down and she is afraid to break her careful boundaries.

“What are you?” he asked.
She said nothing, gave no indication she’d understood. 
He tried again: “You’re not human. You’re made of earth.”
At last she spoke. “And you’re made of fire,” she said.

The writing is beautiful, as are the concepts and the working of intriguing mythology into the story. The setting is perfect, late 19th century New York, a city full of strangers with incomprehensibly varying stories, alone in throngs, trying on identities, looking for their true selves and for some semblance of meaning to attach to the randomness of their lives. In this blend of historical fiction and fantasy, along with the adventures of the Golem and the Jinni, we experience seemingly simple lives - from a brazen young girl dealing with a pregnancy to Ice Cream Saleh, a homeless ice cream maker who sees the devil in people's eyes.

The story is delicate, and slippery; there are many viewpoints and sometimes, it seems haphazard, overly detailed and as if scarcely enough thought went into it; but trudging on through each momentary drabness leads to a seamless conclusion that catches you by surprise. At the very beginning, I thought I could already predict the ending - halfway into the story, it seemed to be heading nowhere - three quarters in, I came close to calling it a bit convoluted - but by the end I was in love. The Golem and the Jinni is an absorbing fusion of ordinary and miraculous. It may not be for everybody, but it is worth a try, at least. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Top Ten Books About Friendship

The first book that I thought of for this topic was Ich nannte ihn Krawatte by Milena Michiko Flašar, and it is about finding emotional comfort in a stranger, but it's German and hence not on the list. The ones I thought of next were all those Enid Blyton series I loved as a kid, The Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers.

I've tried not to include books about friends who fall in love, for this week's Top Ten Tuesday, Books about Friendship topic. Because, really, while a couple who are the best of friends make a really good couple, it isn't exactly their friendship that we love.

(Edit: 0.5. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde - I just remembered how much I loved Ernest and Algernon together, and had to edit them into this list. While the play isn't about friendship, I do love how they'd go to any lengths to have each others' backs, and how it only adds to the confusion.)

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling - The first book is about making friends. But I like the Prisoner of Azkaban the most, because it is about sticking by the friends you've made, loyalty that lasts a lifetime and more. Sirius, James and Lupin were the best!

2. Watership Down by Richard Adams - Granted, these are rabbits not people who are friends, but it's a classic adventure, where by the end you see the band of rabbits resolve all their conflicts and stand united against all odds. If that's not friendship, I don't know what is.

3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - Of course this is here, this had to be here. Rudy loved her like no one else, so of course, I'm referring to Liesel and Max; I'm one of those people who don't think she ends up married to him. 

4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman - This book is for those people who like to tell kids, "You'll get it when you're grown up." As if kids aren't just smaller sized versions of people; it's amazing how most adults forget what it was like to be a child, and couldn't possibly comprehend what a child can understand. And that's the thing that makes childhood friendships unforgettable - the rare kinship. Before I spiral into a whole post about this, I've two words: Lettie Hempstock. 

5. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - Now this book really is simply and most beautifully about two friends and how their friendship lets them overcome all the struggles of their life, together. 

6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - How could this not be about friendship? 

7. Conrad's Fate by Diana Wynne Jones - My favourite in the Chrestomanci series, this book is about how fifteen-year-old Christopher Chant becomes friends with Conrad Grant and together the solve a mystery, to save both Christopher's friend Millie and Conrad himself. I just love the fun these two have, especially how Chant keeps teasing Conrad about his alias 'Grant'. 

8. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - I'm talking about the relationship between Ruth and Kathy & Tommy. It is rocky to start with, and eventually grows and matures as they do, and that's what makes their friendship so real.

9. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman - I just finished reading this trilogy and I only have to say this: Lyra and Roger. 

10. IT by Stephen King - Yes, technically, it's about the crazy scary clown. But it's also about six childhood friends, who face the ultimate danger together and reunite years later to tie up loose ends. It's about this:

 “Maybe there aren't any such things as good friends or bad friends - maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you're hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they're always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that's what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.” 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Summary: The story is set partly in Lud-in-the-Mist, the capital city of the country of Dorimare and a port at the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dapple has its origin in Fairyland, which lies out of sight from Dorimare, across the Debatable Hills. In the olden days, when Dorimare was filled with noblemen and ruled by Duke Aubrey, fairies were revered, and fairy fruit was enjoyed by the people of Dorimare. 

But then the rift between the dukes and the poor began to close, there arose a middle class, who rebelled and expelled Duke Aubrey from Dorimare and the noblemen were no longer the authority. The chaotic beauty of all that was Fairy was driven out and the Law was created, eating fairy fruit became a crime and anything related to Fairyland was unspeakable. So much, in fact, that the worst thing you could call someone was "Son of a Fairy!"

But there are rumours, of fiddlers and tricksters wooing young women, of the dead crossing over to the other side and of Duke Aubrey being alive even centuries later in Fairyland. Our story starts when Nathaniel Chanticleer, the mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, finds out that his son Ranulph may have eaten fairy fruit. Enraged that the nasty fruit was smuggled into Dorimare, worried about his son, and secretly fearing his own doubts about the realness of reality, Master Nathaniel finds himself entangled in old horrific mysteries.

My thoughts: This is my fifth read for Once Upon a Time VIIILud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees is not so much a fantasy, as it is an exploration of slippery truths and the jagged borders of reality, of death, music, and psychedelic dreamery; all packaged as an intriguing murder mystery. Doesn't that sound amazing? Believe me, it is. I highly recommend this book; so does Neil Gaiman, whose recommendations have always been entirely worth my time - as this will be worth yours. Read it!

The setting of Lud-in-the-Mist reminded me alternately of Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. But it isn't entirely like either of the books. For one, the story is a lot more engaging than the two, it is much faster paced than the former and much shorter than the latter - one thing they share is the very gaslamp-fantasy-like Englishness. 

The descritpions are vivid, mesmerizing and the frequent pearly drops of wisdom come as a pleasant surprise. This is what I'm talking about:

Reason is only a drug, and as such, its effects are never permanent. But, like the juice of the poppy, it often gives a temporary relief. 
We have the misfortune of living in a country that marches with the unknown; and that is apt to make the fancy sick. Though we laugh at old songs and old yarns, nevertheless, they are the yarn with which we weave our picture of the world.
But, for once, let us look things straight in the face, and call them by their proper names. Fairyland, for instance... no one has been there within the memory of man. For generations it has been a forbidden land. In consequence, curiosity, ignorance, and unbridled fancy have put their heads together and concocted a country of golden trees hanging with pearls and rubies, the inhabitants of which are immortal and terrible through unearthly gifts - and so on. But - and in this I am in no way subscribing to a certain antiquary of ill odour - there is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy. Think of the Dapple, or the Dawl, when they roll the sunset towards the east. Think of an autumn wood, or a hawthorn in May. A hawthorn in May - there's a miracle for you! Who would ever have dreamed that that gnarled stumpy old tree had the power to do that? Well, all these things are familiar sights, but what should we think if never having seen them we read a description of them, or saw them for the first time? A golden river! Flaming trees! Trees that suddenly break into flower! For all we know, it may be Dorimare that is Fairyland to the people across the Debatable Hills.

The character names are a nightmare, though. While I suppose all fantasy has its cute and quirky nomenclature, especially these small country stories, the likes of Nathaniel Chanticleer, Endymion Leer, Moonlove Honeysuckle, Primrose Crabapple and Polydore Vigil send my head spinning. But if you think about it, it's not the worst 'bad' a book can have, is it? Like I said, read the book. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

This time for Once Upon a Time, I'd decided to read some of those books that I find people from other corners of the world raving about, starting with The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I spent my childhood reading an assortment of fairy tales, then Enid Blyton, later Harry Potter and the occasional Roald Dahl. I can't say I enjoyed many classics. For the last couple of years, I tried my hand at all the books, especially fantasy, that fellow readers read as they grew up - from modern authors like Diana Wynne Jones to good oldies like C. S. Lewis. So with that in mind, I decided to read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. 

Instead of a dull summary and review, here's what you get. FIVE Reasons You Must Read THE LAST UNICORN by Peter S. Beagle:

1. There's a horrible king, a curse by a wicked witch, there's a wizard and a forest full of magic, and then you have an immortal unicorn. But this book is still not your typical medieval fantasy. When the last unicorn in the world sets out one day to find out where the rest of her kind went, she is trapped by a travelling carnival of sorts, where she is displayed along with other creatures, a lion magicked into a manticore, a poor dog disguised as the mighty Cerberus; a spider tricked into believing itself Arachne, a magician who can't control his magic and a real harpy. But the unicorn is freed by the not-quite magician Schmendrick, who accompanies her on her quest to find the Red Bull, who has chased all the unicorns out of the world. The twists and turns make the story enchanting, but it's most rare because it knows itself, it's an unusual fairy tale that is self-aware.

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

2. But then, it also has tradition. It has rhyme; songs and ballads; at one point, it has Robin Hood, though we all know he's not real. There are singing birds and a butterfly who can make sense of nothing but poems his whole short life. There's Madame Fortuna, who runs a carnival and sings the song of old age.

Song of Elli

What is plucked will grow again
What is slain lives on,
What is stolen will remain -- 
What is gone is gone.

What is sea-born dies on land,
Soft is trod upon.
What is given burns the hand --
What is gone is gone.

Here is there, and high is low;
All may be undone.
What is true, no two men know --
What is gone is gone.

Who has choices need not chose.
We must, who have none.
We can love but what we lose -- 
What is gone is gone.

3. And it has descriptions that make you heady. 

Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight.
Outside, the night lay coiled in the street, cobra-cold and scaled with stars.
Men have to have heroes, but no man can ever be as big as the need, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl.
The sky was still black, but it was a watery darkness through which Schmendrick could see the violet dawn swimming. Hard silver clouds were melting as the sky grew warm; shadows dulled, sounds lost their shape, and shapes had not yet decided what they were going to be that day. Even the wind wondered about itself.

4. But it's not only the imagery that grips you. It has characters so real you'll find yourself in them. They are human, and I guess unicorn and wizard and eccentrically butterfly, but even in their dissimilarity, you find what it is to be human. You could owe it to the narrator who makes all characters unlike your fantasy tropes. Prince Lir, the hero, is valiant as only a prince can be, and he's compassionate, but you're not told it. 

As a hero, he understood weeping women and knew how to make them stop crying - generally you killed something - but her calm terror confused and unmanned him, while the shape of her face crumbled the distant dignity he had been so pleased at maintaining. When he spoke again, his voice was young and stumbling.

5. But more than anything, it has insight. Such great insight into people, mortality, selfless love and dwindling belief; that you wonder how a kid is supposed to understand it, then you realize he would and then you recognize that the book is right up there with the bests of fantasy; the books that tuck away great meaning under layers of intrigue, so that when you're done, you're overjoyed and also kind of melancholic, and filled to the brim with thoughts you wouldn't have imagined an entertaining adventure could bring to mind.

We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Five Book Covers I Would Frame As Art

Possession by A. S. Byatt - I love this book and cover, and the writing at the bottom makes it eerily magical: Medusina Regina Faerie Queene

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh - Look at the patterns and the colours, what's not to like?

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett - This is so kickass, the only thing that can make Death on a motorbike more awesome is the knowledge that he likes cats and has a horse named Binky.

any vintage Penguin book cover, be it blue, green or classic orange


Papillon by Henri Charriere - a butterfly in chains, again, what's not to like? Plus, the fairy blue of its wings makes me all kinds of nostalgic.

I love love love this idea. The idea of framing book covers as art. For this week's Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) I've only listed five, but each of these would look great in the house. Who knows, I might even get one done. Which artsy book covers do you think would add that extra touch of awesome to your room?

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery by Nancy Allen

Because of unexpected distractions, and despite the more-than-usual posts I wrote last month, I have a few reviews pending. This is one of those; I couldn't really write a review without properly mulling over the book, because The Code of the Hills by Nancy Allen is a layered book.

Summary: (from Goodreads) In the Missouri Ozarks, some things aren't talked about... even abuse. But prosecutor Elsie Arnold is determined to change that.

When she is assigned to prosecute a high-profile incest case in which a father is accused of abusing his three young daughters, Elsie is ready to become the Ozarks' avenging angel.

But as Elsie sinks her teeth into the case, everything begins to turn sour. The star witness goes missing; the girls refuse to talk about their father, who terrorizes the courtroom from the moment he enters; and Elsie begins to suspect that their tough-as-nails mother has ulterior motives. To make matters worse, Elsie receives gruesome threats from local extremists, warning her to mind her own business.

While Elsie swears not to let a sex offender walk, she realizes the odds - and maybe the town - are against her, and her life begins to crumble. But amidst all of the conflict, the safety of three young girls hangs in the balance...

My thoughts: I suppose I should stop saying I don't like mysteries, because Witness Impulse just keeps on bringing us some truly amazing ones. That being said, The Code of the Hills, as you can guess from the summary, isn't your usual fast paced thrilling murder mystery. It's a very procedure-focused book, the bad guy is already in jail, is being tried for abusing his daughters. And Elsie, a lawyer, is digging into the family history, trying to piece together a case against the man. 

But things are never as black and white as you'd like them to be. And Nancy Allen tells the story with uncompromising honesty. As Elsie uncovers the secrets of the Taney family, she begins to see a pattern of abuse and lies. Donita Taney, the girls' mother is disturbingly conniving, and though she's been a victim of abuse all her life, you find yourself hating her (and then chiding yourself for that.) From the girls, brazen fifteen year old Charlene stands out, reminiscent of Krystal Weedon. So does the littlest of the girls, whom you see internalizing her fears, too young to place the blame on anyone. 

And then you have Elsie Arnolds, the woman who decided to be a lawyer because of a traumatic experience of an old acquaintance. Elsie's perspective guides you through the story, but she's not the most reliable of narrators. She finds faults in everyone she meets, she makes excuses for herself that she wouldn't for anyone else (say, her boss, for instance), she has low self esteem which peeks through most in her conversations with her mother, she lets her boyfriend treat her like crap, only to turn around and be completely disgusted by what the Taney women get themselves into. It's quite irking, how little empathy Elsie has for the victims, how she wants to play Prospero and fix them, when she can't even sort herself out. Often it seems like the victims are not as important to her as proving herself right. She's hard to like, a gray protagonist, but she means well. And in the end, she redeems herself most convincingly.

The book is thoroughly engaging and has a lot to teach. The difficult topic is carefully dealt with. You wouldn't suspect the ending, because it's not about finding one solution, but putting it all together. The book is well written. But it's not easy to digest. The Code of the Hills by Nancy Allen is no breeze to read. If the summary interests you, if you can deal with bitter truths and don't mind an emotional roller-coaster ride, read this book.