Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

Searching for "books like Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis" led me to Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, because it is based on a Norwegian fairy tale which is  a Cupid and Psyche story. Ice seemed all nice on Goodreads but not worth the money according to Amazon reviews. Then I read a fabulous review on Vishy's blog of East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Jackie Morris, another retelling of the same myth. I was all set to buy it, except: I didn't find a Kindle version. Finally, I read an altogether different retelling, turns out there are many. But: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George was, after all this effort, kind of a disappointment.

The Story: The book starts with a young girl, an unwanted last child. She's called "pika" (which apparently just means girl) by her poor family and Lass by her favourite brother Hans Peter. Of all her brothers, Lass is drawn to Hans Peter because like her, he doesn't quite belong in the family. Being a grown-up, he's supposed to be out in the world; instead, he's returned from a voyage, somewhat broken, and stays at home carving weird symbols out of wood.

Years later, a polar bear, an "isbjørn" shows up at their house. He asks Lass to accompany him to his palace and she reluctantly agrees. The deal is: she must stay with him for a whole year and in return, the bear will make her family rich. At the palace, Lass spends her days in the library, chatting with the servants (from fawns to salamanders) and dining with the isbjørn.

But the ice palace is full of mysteries. Every night, a man slips into Lass's room and sleeps on her bed, slinking away each morning. The walls are covered with symbols like the ones Hans Peter carves. Slowly, Lass discovers that the isbjørn and the servants of the palace are under the curse of a troll princess, and she must do what she can to save them.

"Love? What do you know about love?" 
"It’s at the heart of every story,” Rollo said with authority. "If humans could avoid falling in love, you would never get yourselves into any trouble." 

My thoughts: I like the plot and the folksy atmosphere right from the first page. The it's-so-cold,-you-can't-feel-yourself wintry details are exotic for someone forever on the verge of melting in the heat of India. And the frequent references to Norwegian sayings and customs, bits of the local language here and there definitely go a long way in creating the mood. But that's where my likes end.

The writer mentions in her acknowledgments that she fell in love with the letter "ø" which led to this book. I love the use of language in books, it adds an extra something, a feel of the place. I have no idea how most of the words were supposed to sound - but I figured the "ø" is like the German "ö" (correct me if I'm wrong) It was fun relating the words to English or the legends to ones you know. But for me the book does not manage to go beyond a sort of crush on the Norwegian culture. Sure, considerable research must have gone into the book - but it has no point other than too ooh and aah over this Norwegian folktale.

In the Till We Have Faces, Lewis takes the Eros and Psyche myth and tells it from the point of view of the apparently jealous sister and plays out his version of the events. There is something to learn from the retelling. In the other mythology-centric book I love - Ragnarok by A. S. Byatt - she keeps the original story but tells it from the point of view of a little girl being drawn into the great mythic destruction.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is just a fairy tale expanded with descriptions of ice and dialogue. The characters are one dimensional at best. They make choices without any thought about the repercussions. Lass lets her isbjørn kill a bear, so that her hunter brother can say he did it. The isbjørn promises the bear, who by the way is pleading not to be killed, that his soul will go to heaven for his sacrifice. For Lass, who understands and empathizes with animals, this is enough. She lets servants die for her unquenchable curiousity and only 'feels bad' about it afterwards. She lets the man who slips into her bed every night carry her back into bed when she tries to get away; and only protests with a 'this is silly' when he pins her down. I get it, all these instances are okay in every fairy tale, where princesses are usually naive and maudlin, but that's not what George claims to have written. She has tried to make her story more than a straightforward fairy tale by adding emotions and thoughts in some convenient places.

The book feels like a half-baked idea, it's neither nor there. You're told the lass and the isbjørn have conversations over dinner and they like each other's company, but the author never takes the effort to show us one of these scenes. When the lass goes off to rescue her prince, there's no mention why she's doing it - no gradual falling in love that a proper romance demands. Wherever adding her own pieces of plot to the story is required, the author conveniently falls back on the formulaic fairy tale.

I suppose the only thing different from the original fairy tale is Hans Peter's thread of story. And while it is neatly tied up in the end, it's wonky along the way. How does Hans Peter escape from the troll's curse, how does he let the isbjørn take away his favourite sister when he knows how dangerous it is, how can the girl Hans Peter takes to his palace when he is the bear overwrite the curse without being magical, why does he never go looking for his lover? - the answers are never revealed.

I was discussing this book with a friend and she told me that that is what young adult literature is. But I don't accept that! I don't read a lot of YA, but I resent the assumption that YA implies underdeveloped characters and simplistic writing. For me, the problem with the book is that what one looks for in a fairy tale itself is far different from what one wants from a retelling of a fairy tale - and the author seems not to have realized that.

Do you read YA? You don't agree with my friend, do you? And what about retellings? Is a rewording the same as a retelling for you? This, sadly, wasn't enough for me.

I read this for the Once Upon a Time Challenge

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I read this for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

I am completely sure only about one thing when it comes to this book, and it is this: I would not have been quite as charitable as I am now had it not been for my never-ending exams and lack of good books and sleep. So with that disclaimer out of the way: I LOVE IT. The Princess Bride by William Goldman needs to be added to that list of the most unique books I've ever read.

Summary (from Goodreads) What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince of all time and he turns out to be...well...a lot less than the man of her dreams?

As a boy, William Goldman claims, he loved to hear his father read the S. Morgenstern classic, The Princess Bride. But as a grown-up he discovered that the boring parts were left out of good old Dad's recitation, and only the "good parts" reached his ears. Now Goldman does Dad one better. He's reconstructed the "Good Parts Version" to delight wise kids and wide-eyed grownups everywhere.

What's it about? Fencing. Fighting. True Love. Strong Hate. Harsh Revenge. A Few Giants. Lots of Bad Men. Lots of Good Men. Five or Six Beautiful Women. Beasties Monstrous and Gentle. Some Swell Escapes and Captures. Death, Lies, Truth, Miracles, and a Little Sex. In short, it's about everything.

My summary: And you'd think that's all you need to know about this book to not be utterly disappointed, and it is (because that, having been taken right out of the book, should give an idea about the kind of book it is) but let me just spell it out for you anyway (because some Goodreads reviews suggest that the reader hadn't quite figured it out from the blurb.) The Princess Bride is comic fantasy. So think Discworld, not Lord of the Rings.

Goldman's "good parts" abridgment starts with the beautiful Buttercup realizing she's in love with the stable boy Westley. He loves her back but wants to go to America to earn a fortune and has been preparing himself for just that. He does leave, with a promise to come back (but he doesn't) and she promises never to to fall in love again (and so she doesn't.) But then the Prince of Florin, where Buttercup lives, needs to get married before his father, the King, dies. And Prince Humperdinck (seriously) chooses Buttercup (more or less, they make a deal to get married, when he tells her the choice is that or death. He, of course, expects no love and she doesn't offer any.) For a long time Buttercup trains to be a princess, until, right before her wedding she is kidnapped by three men: a Spaniard, who is good with the sword, a short, bald, conniving Sicilian and a giant of a man who likes rhymes. The Kingdom of Florin assumes it was their neighbour Guilder trying to mess up the Prince's wedding (which is obviously wasn't, when have fairy tales ever been so simple? Humperdinck, who has a hunting fetish, has bad-guy written all over him.) But then someone, a mysterious man in all black with a black mask fights all three kidnappers and rescues Buttercup from them, and you know who he turns out to be, don't you?

My thoughts: It promised everything, and it did have a lot of everything - adventure, true love, to-the-death kind of hate, mind blowing characters with long back-stories and a lot of comedy. Then I reached a point, where I felt: um, sure, I mean, it's great, it's adventure, but it's not exactly fantasy. I mean, where's the magic? And BAM there was magic. And then I felt: whoa, this book is it. Of course, the book did have its very own non-fairy-tale message and it means a lot - I think that's the moral books should teach kids, instead of mollifying darker tales into sweet nothings. 

But what I really liked was the structure of the book. It took some getting used to. The book is written by a reader. As the reader and the writer of the book, Goldman tells us the story and then tells us what he thought of the story at the same time. There are a lot of asides in the book, many parentheses, which tell us why Goldman added this or why he cut this part out, and that makes it different from every other book you've read. It's an amazing technique, I have to say. Because essentially, this book is not about The Princess Bride at all. It's about stories and what makes them endlessly fascinating. A young sick boy listening to his Dad narrate a book to him is bound to associate the book with that event and the feelings of abandon and excitement it created in him for the rest of his life.

I have had so many people rudely dismiss me over the years for liking fiction with a snarky, "But it's so pointless" and I could come up with forty uses of fiction in retort. But the fact remains, you read fiction because it is fun. There would not have been quite so many legends, myths and folktales had story-telling not brought such pure pleasure. So, it boils down to what it means to write good fiction, doesn't it? It should be engaging. Good fiction will make you cast off your grown-up need to learn something out of everything and go ahead and have innocent childish fun, already! And that's what Goldman gives you with this book. Takes you back to the days when you'd throw aside all work, dive mind-first into a book and swim lazily in the pool of awesomeness that is a well told story.

I mean, Morgenstern (who is really nobody, but supposedly the guy who wrote this huge book that Goldman abridged) called his original version of The Princess Bride, S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure and literary scholars later told Goldman that is was about politics and satire and social commentary - but only pompous literary scholars would claim that that is what makes good books good. Because for me, how amazingly interesting (note how interesting doesn't have to mean 'happy') a book is decides how much I love it. If it gets trite and boring, if fiction conveys a message before it tells a story, it's magic is lost on me.

What about you? Why do you read fiction? Have you read this? And the movie: should I go to great lengths to acquire it? I've heard it's better than the book...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Five Places Books Make Me Want to Visit

I find myself making too many lists on this blog lately - the blame lies partly on Top Ten Tuesday, I'm participating after a whole year and very enthusiastic about it - and partly on the fact that having been annoyingly busy with exams, I hardly find time to read. Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic is the ten bookish things I want to buy - but honestly, while I love the idea of some, I'm always reluctant to spend on trinkets what I could spend on books.

My topic today is from Indiblogger's Indispire initiative. The idea is pretty straightforward: five places I want to visit because I read about them in books. I don't mean fictional places here, though, no Platform 9 3/4 or Hogsmeade in this list. Here are five real places I want to visit because I read about them in fiction. Hopefully, when I reach a point where I finance my own trips, I will get around to this. (Till then all the places in fiction I get to visit would be ones right here in India.)

Of course, these five mean hardly the end of my list, but I've only included those books which have extensive descriptions of locations, particularly those I could find!

Transylvania - Romania - Carpathian Mountains - Do I even have to say it? 
- from Dracula by Bram Stoker
(picture taken from Wikipedia) The picture is the view from Bran Castle, which is one of the castles associated with Dracula's castle.

Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water. One of my companions touched my arm as we swept round the base of a hill and opened up the lofty, snow-covered peak of a mountain, which seemed, as we wound on our serpentine way, to be right before us:-

"Look! Isten szek!"- "God's seat!"- and he crossed himself reverently.

Spain - Roncesvalles - or the road leading up to it! 
- from The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

These descriptions of Burgete made me swoon more than those of Pamplona. Pictured is the house where Hemingway stayed according to Wikipedia.
(picture taken from Wikipedia.) 

The bus climbed steadily up the road. The country was barren and rocks stuck up through the clay. There was no grass beside the road. Looking back we could see the country spread out below. Far back the fields were squares of green and brown on the hillsides. Making the horizon were the brown mountains. They were strangely shaped. As we climbed higher the horizon kept changing. As the bus ground slowly up the road we could see other mountains coming up in the south. Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing back in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north. As we came to the edge of the rise we saw the red roofs and white houses of Burguete ahead strung out on the plain, and away off on the shoulder of the first dark mountain was the gray metal-sheathed roof of the monastery of Roncesvalles.

Germany - The Rhein - The Loreley Rock - from the poem Die Lorelei by Heinrich Heine which is the first German poem I remember reading some four years ago. It's a haunting poem relating a legend of the siren. This is a Mark Twain translation.
(picture taken from Wikipedia)

I cannot divine what it meaneth;
This haunting nameless pain.
A tale of the bygone ages,
Keeps brooding through my brain.
The faint air cools in the gloaming;
And peaceful flows the Rhine.
The thirsty summits are drinking;
The sunset's flooding wine.

The loveliest maiden is sitting;
High-throned in yon blue air.
Her golden jewels are shining;
She combs her golden hair,
She combs with a comb that is golden,
And sings a weird refrain;
That steeps in a deadly enchantment
The listener's ravished brain.

The doomed in his drifting shallop,
Is tranced with the sad sweet tone.
He sees not the yawing breakers,
He sees but the maid alone.
The pitiless billwos engulf him;
So perish sailor and bark,
And this, with her baleful singing,
Is the Loreley's gruesome work.

Ushuaia - Tierra del Fuego - Argentina  - the Beagle Channel - from This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

Granted, the book is pre-colonization-old, which is the point - the channel was named after HMS Beagle, which carried Captain Robert FitzRoy and Darwin. And also, it is my favourite book in the world. The location is also famous for Verne's The Lighthouse at the end of the World, but the channel will always mean more to me.
(picture from Wikipedia)

The sun nudged aside the persistent grey clouds in celebration. There, in a sheltered cove, nestled an acre or so of rich, sloping pastureland, well watered by brooks and protected on three sides by low, wooded hills. The pretty little natural harbour was studded with islets, the water smooth and glassy, with low branches overhanging a rocky beach. It was so beautiful, so unexpected amid the wilds of Tierra del Fuego, that it possessed an almost dreamlike quality. It was the perfect place to build a mission.

The Uffington White Horse - Oxfordshire - England - from the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett 

For me, this will always be Tiffany Aching's curious horse pendant. The young witch is from The Chalk, an area of rolling chalk downland near Lancre in Discworld and this is the most famous land mark. I love what Granny Aching says about the horse.
(picture from Wikipedia)

“'Taint what a horse looks like, it’s what a horse be.”

Is that it!? I only get to pick five? I can think of so many others. What about you? Any place you want to see from a book you love? Any place you already have been to? Content, though I am, as an armchair traveller, visiting the world through words, I'd love the words to make me go places, too.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Favourite Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror Moments

This post contains spoilers, sorry if you already read something you wish you hadn't.

Vote for the 250 Greatest Sci-Fi and Fantasy Moments: This has been going around for a while now, and I already voted last week, but I decided to post about it on my blog, anyway.

"SFX’s 250th edition is approaching rapidly. To celebrate, we’re compiling the definitive list of the 250 greatest moments in science fiction, fantasy and horror. You can vote in the poll, so it truly is a democratic list of the moments that have made our genre great. Anything is eligible, from comics, TV, film, books and games. Our experts have hand-picked 250 of our favourites for you to choose from, and here they are." 

You get to pick ten favourites and add one extra "other". You have until April 30 to vote, and I'm sure, unlike me, many of you wouldn't really care about voting. But it's a fun list to go through and you'll probably, not unlike me, end up all nostalgic. Here are my top three most iconic, memorable moments, one from TV, one from a movie and one from a book.

I'm not big on sci-fi but even I had a hard time choosing three out of 250 - there were at least twenty other moments I loved, along with the rest I voted for in my top ten. The Doctor's and Rose's final goodbye, the Firefly scene (I don't remember which, but come on,) the 1984 Room 101 rat-torture, the Fahrenheit 451 snow scene, Angel, Fringe, the Hitchhiker's Guide "answer" moment, the... you know what, there are just too many. You might find my blog getting kind of repetitive with Discworld, Stephen King and Whedon references, but I'll never tire of them - they're not my favourites for no reason, and: I still do hold that they're all pretty undervalued.

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer 
(Season 5 Episode 16, "The Body")

Buffy comes home to find Joyce dead, her tough exterior cracks and the slayer can't even remember how to perform CPR. This was unarguably the best episode of Buffy, and it's worth watching the entire series if only for this. In the all the horror and gore of the show, the most touching and emotional moments are those which we all face. I have never seen the death of a parent, or any death, filmed so close to the truth, as honest and as touching as this - the helplessness, the disbelief and the horror in her eyes when she calls her own mother 'the body' - Dawn's breakdown when Buffy tells her, in school.. and just the perfect conversation between Tara and Buffy, 

Buffy: Everybody wants to help. I don't even know if I'm ... here. I don't know what's going on. Never done this... That's just an amazingly dumb thing to say. Obviously ... I've never done this before.
Tara: (softly) I have... My mother died when I was seventeen.
Buffy: I didn't know. I'm sorry.
Tara: No, no, I didn't mean to... I'm only telling you this because, I know it's not my place, but. There's things, thoughts and reactions I had that I couldn't understand or even try to explain to anyone else. Thoughts that made me feel like I was losing it or, like I was some kind of horrible person. I know it's different for you because it's always different, but if you ever need...
Buffy: Was it sudden? 
Tara: What? 
Buffy: Your mother.
Tara: No... Yes. It's always sudden.

"It's always sudden." and "It's always different." - That made at once teary and empowered.

2. Carrie
(1976, the Prom Night pig's blood scene)

I doubt there is anything quite as terrifying in the WORLD as Sissy Spacek wide-eyed, screaming and covered in blood. No description from the book could have prepared me for that iconic scene. Of course, the book isn't written linearly. You know what Carrie did (well, kind of) far before she was actually driven to it and you know explicitly the prank they have planned on her, so even amidst all the gore, you know she's angry and violated and you even feel an inkling pity, and a little of her vengeance makes sense - but in the movie, it's all so fast and so unexpected. She's been practising her telekinetic powers, sure, but that scene from that (pictured) pretty and happy into a monster and God, Sissy Spacek is scary. It was effective and unforgettable, even though reading the book meant you knew it.

3. Hogather by Terry Pratchett
(Discworld series #20, Death's and Susan's conversation about belief.)

I had a little argument with myself over which book scene to post - the Hogfather one or the Harry Potter graveyard scene, where Voldemort returns. I posted this because while I've read that one more time that I can count, know it by heart, this scene and this book was the reason I fell in love with the Discworld series. It's the fifth book I read (the first two books, then Mort and the rest of Death's series.) 

It's time for Hogswatch (the Discworld equivalent of Christmas) but the Hogfather, a fat jolly man who brings presents for the children, has gone missing. To maintain the spirit of Hogswatch, Death (yes, the hooded figure with the horse and the scythe) decides to dress up as the Hogfather, instead. If that doesn't sound unique, I don't know what will...

There is also a TV movie, Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, with Michelle Dockery as Susan Sto Helit's Death's granddaughter. Death speaks in unquoted caps, but he has no vocal cords, anyway, so you just hear the voice booming directly in your head. Creepy, right? But he's a good guy, just doing his job, and if that were not enough, he likes cats.
The conversation:

All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."


"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"


"So we can believe the big ones?"


"They're not the same at all!"


"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"


Check out the list and let me know your favourites!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Butterfly Season by Natasha Ahmed

This is going to be long, because this book has really made me think; which is saying something, because it was barely a hundred pages long. I'll sum up my review, for those of you who don't wish to scroll all the way down for the conclusion: it's a good book, if you're South Asian, you will find it inspiring, strong and relatable. If not, it will provide a frank and non-exoticized look at a culture that is subjected to all kinds of stereotyping. Not to mention, it's quirky, cute and you'll have fun reading it. Not convinced yet? Well, you might have to read the whole review, after all.

Summary (from Goodreads:) On her first holiday in six years, Rumi is expecting to relax and unwind. But when she is set up by her long-time friend, she doesn’t shy away from the possibilities. Ahad, a charming, independent, self-made man, captures her imagination, drawing her away from her disapproving sister, Juveria. Faced with sizzling chemistry and a meeting of the minds, Ahad and Rumi find themselves deep in a relationship that moves forward with growing intensity. But as her desire for the self-assured Ahad grows, Rumi struggles with a decision that will impact the rest of her life.

Confronted by her scandalized sister, a forbidding uncle and a society that frowns on pre-marital intimacy, Rumi has to decide whether to shed her middle-class sensibilities, turning her back on her family, or return to her secluded existence as an unmarried woman in Pakistan. We follow Rumi from rainy London to a sweltering Karachi, as she tries to take control of her own destiny.

My thoughts: All right, grievances first: I'd call this an illustration of the don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover motto, I have to say, for a book with some truly mesmerizing moments, the cover could have been better. I thought the book was too short, I would have liked more development of the characters, I'd have given them a little more time to fall for each other, and even more time to stay 'fallen' until the conflicts arose. Here’s hoping Ahmed's next book is longer. At the risk of sounding nit-picky, the book could have been edited better: spelling mistakes, a few awkward constructions, words like wry, languorous, elegant repeated far too often for my taste.

Now to the goods, and there were so many. It's common knowledge that I don't like the kind of formulaic romance that is churned out with astonishing regularity today. Anyway, I have read at least a few love stories and the one thing that's consistently bothered me about a typical read of the genre is that there's little else but sizzling romance. That is not the case with Natasha Ahmed's Butterfly Season. The story is honest, and while you can predict the way it’ll turn, you’re still invested in the journey.

The conflict of the book is well tackled. Sex before marriage being a taboo, letting your family decide whom you end up with, having kids being your sole focus, not getting a choice in the most basic decisions of your life – these are not uncommon even today here in India and I have no doubt the prejudice exists in the rest of South Asia, Pakistan, the Middle East. But the book does something I didn't expect from the author’s initial e-mail, it never sounds preachy, nor like a rebellious angst filled complaint. Hell, you find Rumi passionately defending Karachi till the very end, if that doesn't sound fair, I don’t know what will.

The author gives a scenario, an example: a typical desi Pakistani girl from a fairly conservative family falls for a considerably open minded and experienced Pakistani man settled in London. After dating for a while, she has to decide whether she would sleep with him, and she surprises herself with her choice. When the time comes to define the relationship, she finds herself parroting everything that’s been hammered into her growing up, lessons of right and wrong. These are philosophies which sound reasonable enough until actually put to test. Is she orthodox and irrational, or does he really not have good ‘values’ only because he wants to take their relationship a step further than she’s used to? You’d be surprised by how many people I know would side with Rumi's family, and there’d be a considerable lot that’d say, “It is wrong that it’s a taboo, but why do something you know society is not going to like!?” The people who care about you would never adjust for you. That is just out of the question.

Then, surprisingly, the book delves even deeper into the issue. Rumi doesn't want to sever ties with her family; she loves her kid sister, even though Juveria's is being unfair. She tries to make it work until circumstances turn to the very worst and making a choice becomes inevitable, no matter the consequences. And while the premise of this may sound ridiculous to the westerners or the more liberal people here, a “So what? Big deal!” kind of issue, the story isn't only about these taboos. It’s about finding yourself, learning to love yourself and accepting people for what they are. It’s about not meddling in others' lives or considering it your right, about being less skeptical of change and finding the strength to be different, and if need be, facing the challenges it might bring up. Geography only changes the type of problem, not the crux.

The book has character. It's about two people who get along really well and fall in love. And we read about more than just her fluttering heart and his firm hands or something. Ahmed plays out Ahad and Rumi's conversations for you, from their families and jobs to their tastes in music, books. They feel like real people instead of stock characters. And they feel modern, not in the sense of unorthodox (that would kind of beat the purpose of the book) but in that there is little melodrama. A fight feels like a fight, not a whole production.

But the thing I love the most about this book is the atmosphere. The writing feels alive with a love for the characters' roots. I have a thing for Urdu, having always been fascinated by my father's self taught fluency in it. I like the little mentions of culture in the book, the bits of Urdu and even the very English English - like when Ahad says his Cockney accent and the inevitable dropping of h’s and t’s made his mother teach him Urdu. I like all the pop culture references - be it the Junoon-Vital Signs debate or the bad Corleone impression. And I love the song that Ahmed has, for the most part, based the title on. As far as I understand, it is about dealing with separation from your mother and I suppose, your motherland. The butterfly motifs and the fluttering butterflies in Rumi's stomach as she fell in love fit wonderfully together as the title of the book. I found a set of lyrics translated here, but the author has provided a compact glossary at the end of the book, anyway. I can't say I'd heard the song before, but it's beautiful. You should listen to it too, just to get in the mood, before you go buy the book!

Butterfly Season by Natasha Ahmed has been published by Indireads, as part of a wide range of romance novellas for South Asian readers everywhere. Natasha Ahmed is a pen name. In real life, Natasha is a graphic designer, a businesswoman and occasionally writes art and book reviews for publications within Pakistan. Butterfly Season is her debut book and for a first effort, it is lovely. You can visit the author's website for more about the book.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Scared to Live by Stephen Booth

Scared to Live is the seventh book in the Ben Cooper and Diane Fry series by English crime writer Stephen Booth. Scared to Live is a memorable book and for the first time in a long time, I find I'm totally obsessed with a series.

Rose had always known she’d be killed. Well, it felt like always. She could barely remember a time before she’d known. She expected to meet her death because of the way she’d led her life. It was a question of when it would happen, and how. All she could hope for was that it would be sudden, and painless. (...) In some ways, knowing her fate only made things worse. It meant that she lived every day in fear. (...) For a long time now, she'd considered it more difficult to live than to die.

SummaryHow do you investigate the murder of a woman without a life?

That's the challenge facing Detective Constable Ben Cooper and Detective Sergeant Diane Fry when a reclusive agoraphobic is found shot to death in her home. For a woman with no friends, no family, and virtually no contact with the world, someone took an exceptional amount of care executing her murder. At nearly the same moment, a raging house fire claims the life of a young mother and two of her children. But troubling questions remain in the ashes. Among them, how did the fire start and where was the husband at two A.M.?

As the two cases begin to converge, a horrific possibility takes shape. A killer is stalking the Peak District whose motives are a mystery and whose methods are unpredictable. And his next victims could be the only two cops who can stop him.

My thoughts: I'll begin with all the things I've said before. You can start reading the series with this book, but I really think you should first get to know the characters through the first book, Black Dog. Scared to Live is not really fast paced, but it is definitely thrilling. There are twists and turns and unexpected outcomes, but they are not all there is. The book is set in the fictional Peak District town of Edendale and are filled with picturesque descriptions of the countryside. It revolves around the lives of two Derbyshire detectives, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry. The reason I say lives is that the book does not feature a single investigation. There are multiple cases, multiple solutions and long glimpses into their personal lives, interactions and opinions. That is not to say that the author doesn't manage to neatly tie it all up together at the end. For me, Scared to Live and the other books in the series are almost genre-defying and rarely as riddled with stereotypes as most small town crime fiction (the "cozies" as they're called.) They feel complete.

In Scared to Live, Cooper takes on the carefully executed murder of a mysterious woman, Rose Shepherd, who seems to have no life or connection with the rest of the world, while Diane Fry struggles with the investigation of the fire, convinced that the husband started the house fire that killed his wife and daughters. However, neither case leads anywhere, until they find the thing that connects the two. The missing child of the victims of the house fire is discovered to be adopted and the family is supposed to have met the other victim, the loner, Rose Shepherd.

Ben Cooper is an altogether likable character. He is the one everyone's fond of, the son of a policeman, grown up on a farm and is pretty much the go-to guy when it comes to local information. He has 'instincts', few qualms about breaking rules when following his intuition, he empathizes with the victims and gets attached too easily. But for all his outgoing, warm helpfulness, he is kind of naive, which of course only makes him cuter. Diane Fry is the exact opposite. At first glance, I suppose she'd be an intimidating, stern person you'd hesitate to go up to. She is a city-girl stuck in the countryside, desperate to get out and reluctant to form any bonds. And she has a past that brought her to Edendale from Birmingham. Unlike Cooper, Diane has no family to speak of, having been in foster care, no friends and a very go-by-the-book attitude. You don't find her expressing any feelings other than a sort of derisive sarcasm, and you find it very difficult to sympathize with her. She also shares a history with Cooper that you'd want to read Black Dog to know.

It's the complex tension between Cooper and Fry that makes these novels as engaging as they are. They often misunderstand, disagree with and infuriate each other. And no, they don't end up together (haven't yet, anyway) nor do you want them to - most people end up hating Fry, although I kind of like her for being the gritty outsider that she is, not all characters can be perfect saints. In Scared to Live, though, we get to see a more human side of Fry, she has an almost crush, though not quite. She begins to care about the surviving daughter of the victims of the suspicious house fire, the girl who turns out to have a similar past as Fry herself. Ben Cooper's personal life features less in this book, we know he's dating scene-of-crime-officer Liz Petty. Although, I was considerably haunted by his brother Matt's worry that his daughter might have a genetic inclination to schizophrenia because of their mother.

The best thing about Scared to Live is the international turn it takes. Saying any more, in my opinion, would ruin the book for you. The story is intense and heart wrenching, the themes are intriguing and the ending is epic. Like every book I've read in this series, the final showdown left me chuckling with satisfaction. Read it.

I got this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

What about your favourites - any mystery series you'd recommend?

Top Ten Most Unique Books I've Read

This week's topic for Top Ten Tuesday is the top ten most unique books you've read. Now 'unique' could mean anything - a different kind of main character, a unique spin on the genre or writing style. I haven't put a lot of thought into this list, which makes me all the more curious to read the book you guys have come up with. Off the top of my head, in no particular order, these are ten of the most unique books I've read. Incidentally, I haven't loved everything about these books, but the things that made them unique did impress me. 

1. Watership Down by Richard Adams - All the characters were rabbits. What could possibly be more unique than that!?

2. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino - The main character is me.. I mean, you.. I mean, the reader. A book narrated from the second person perspective literally makes you a part of the story. 

3. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco - This book is about memories, I have never read anything like it. It's a book about the main character having amnesia and rediscovering himself through the trinkets that he has collected over the years - a unique idea and narrative technique.

4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel - A book doesn't have to be obscure to be unique and in all honesty, everything about this book is unique. The characters, the plot and the weirdly humorous writing style. 

5. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman - Retellings couldn't get as original as this one - which is a sort of parody of The Jungle Book, set in a graveyard. As the story of a young orphan raised by ghosts, it's worth a read.

6. Hogfather (from Discworld) by Terry Pratchett - It's time for Hogswatch (the Discworld equivalent of Christmas) but the Hogfather, a fat jolly man who brings presents for the children, has gone missing. To maintain the spirit of Hogswatch, Death (yes, the hooded figure with the horse and the scythe) decides to dress up as the Hogfather, instead. If that doesn't sound unique, I don't know what will...

7. Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber - A compelling and (arguably) true story of a woman with sixteen personalities and her journey to cure. Fine, I haven't finished the book yet, but it is definitely unique so far.

8. Possession by A. S. Byatt - The book is about two literary academics uncovering the romance between two Victorian poets, through their letters to each other. The prose is unique, layered and deep, and every time you come close to calling it purple, you wonder if you have been teased all along, if it was satire, after all. It's a mysterious book that gives you something new with every read.

9. The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll - This uniquely literary fantasy is the story of a writer and the world he created, literally.

10. Perfume by Patrick Süskind - The book played on the uniquely disturbing idea that a man committed murders of beautiful smelling women to catch their scents and make them into the most wonderful perfume in the world. 

Do you agree with my list? Have you read any of these books? And which are the most unique books you've read?