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!

1.
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.

2.
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.

3.
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.

4.
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.

5.
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."

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

"So we can believe the big ones?"

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

"They're not the same at all!"

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

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

MY POINT EXACTLY.”
________________________________________________________________________

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?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

“If enough people believe, you can be god of anything…”

I loved this book. So did the cat, as you can see, who turned it first into a pillow and then a bedtime toy. Small Gods is one of the bests of the Discworld series. You can read it as a standalone (in fact, you can do that with most of the forty books.) If you do like the Discworld series, but haven't read this, do yourself a favour and don't wait any longer. If you haven't read it, you should start with this book, and perhaps a bit of an introduction.

The Discworld, written by British author Terry Pratchett, is a series of comic fantasy novels. The series is set on the Discworld - a flat disc, balanced on the backs of four elephants, who stand on the back of a ginormous turtle called the Great A'Tuin who swims through space.

The story begins in the Church of the Great God Om. The Cenobiarch of Omnia, a vulture of a man named Vorbis is busy extinguishing heretical ideas that keep springing up. "The Turtle moves." The rumour has spread deep and wide, and it goes against the very truth that the Church holds. The rumour is that the world is flat. Ring a bell? The Omnians know the world is a perfect sphere and Vorbis is ready to go to any lengths to remove every shred of heresy from his people's minds, even if it means removing the people, especially if it means that. 

Meanwhile, in the gardens of the Citadel of Om, Brutha, a novice finds himself in the company of a talking tortoise, who claims to be the Great God Om, caught in a difficult situation. Om tells the simple fat boy about his failed attempt to manifest in the world in the form a bull and his current state, stuck as a tortoise. Slowly, through Om, Brutha learns to see gods for what they truly are and religion for what it has become. 

Vorbis, who happens to come across Brutha is impressed by his eidetic memory and unquestioning outlook and chooses Brutha to accompany him on a diplomatic mission to Ephebe, a place where they have many gods and hence, many heretics. Brutha considers himself generally unintelligent and unimportant. But he is the only person in the world who believes in Om. So he is the only person who can hear the talking tortoise. Brutha is the Chosen one. You see, in this world, as I suppose in any other, gods need belief to exist. As people lose faith, their gods become lowlier, until they cease to exist. In Omnia, people no longer believe in Om, they believe in the Church and the clergy. And so, the once Great God Om, terrified by his sudden mortality, is desperate and clingy and convinces Brutha to take him along. As story progresses, it's time for gods to start believing in people.

The book is at once zany and insightful. Pratchett takes his writing very seriously. What makes it brilliant is that he does it with a laugh. For every vehement supporter of the 'learning through fun' mantra, Pratchett is a must-read. Religion has to be one of the most parodied themes. Hey, it's probably 'cool' to make fun of religion. But this book doesn't poke fun at religious people. Small Gods doesn't take sides and so, every reader has something to learn from it. Of course, that requires reading with an open mind, laughing at the jokes, because they are worth a chuckle; if you take offense, it's your loss.

Philosophizing apart, the book is also engaging. Om is adorable as the poor little indignant tortoise who hates his fate, Brutha is a protagonist created to be loved and it's fun to be inside his mind. Deacon Vorbis is frighteningly true to life. Every character you meet leaves an impression. And even though the plot basically runs on witty dialogue, it does have a beginning, a middle and fabulous fireworks-ey end. You know, when it comes to Discworld, I always feel my mind bubbling with things to say and when I sit down to write, no words seem enough. So, before my review takes on a defensive tone, I'll take the easy way out, and let Pratchett's writing speak for itself.

(on wanting gods to perform miracles)
“Humans! They lived in a world where the grass continued to be green and the sun rose every day and flowers regularly turned into fruit, and what impressed them? Weeping statues. And wine made out of water! A mere quantum-mechanistic tunnel effect, that'd happen anyway if you were prepared to wait zillions of years. As if the turning of sunlight into wine, by means of vines and grapes and time and enzymes, wasn't a thousand times more impressive and happened all the time...”

(on Disc politics)
“The Ephebians believed that every man should have the vote (provided that he wasn't poor, foreign, nor disqualified by reason of being mad, frivolous, or a woman). Every five years someone was elected to be Tyrant, provided he could prove that he was honest, intelligent, sensible, and trustworthy. Immediately after he was elected, of course, it was obvious to everyone that he was a criminal madman and totally out of touch with the view of the ordinary philosopher in the street looking for a towel. And then five years later they elected another one just like him, and really it was amazing how intelligent people kept on making the same mistakes.”

(on philosophers, the world being flat and the nature of Truth)
“But is all this true?" said Brutha.

Didactylos shrugged. "Could be. Could be. We are here and it is now. The way I see it is, after that, everything tends towards guesswork."

"You mean you don't KNOW it's true?" said Brutha.

"I THINK it might be," said Didactylos. "I could be wrong. Not being certain is what being a philosopher is all about.”

His mind was on fire. These people made all these books about things, and they weren't sure. But he'd been sure, and Brother Nhumrod had been sure, and Deacon Vorbis had a sureness you could bend horseshoes around. Sureness was a rock.

Now he knew why, when Vorbis spoke about Ephebe, his face was gray with hatred and his voice was tense as a wire. If there was no truth, what was there left? And these bumbling old men spent their time kicking away the pillars of the world, and they'd nothing to replace them with but uncertainty. And they were proud of this?

So, I read this as part of the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, Quest the First (or the Third, if I join in for the June readalong.) I don't have to classify this into a category, but it does fall into fantasy, and maybe a little mythology. 

Have you read the Discworld series? If you have, which is your favourite book and character? - I don't know many Discworld fans in real life and don't get to discuss this often enough! For that matter, any other humourous fantasy recommendations? What have you been reading for the Once Upon a Time challenge?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Short History of the World - A Book Spine Poem

A Short History of the World 

Red Earth and Pouring Rain
Magic of the Angels
Sacred Games, Burning Bright,
The End of the Gods.

Born Free, Going Solo,
All Creatures Great and Small.
A Time to Kill Men of Honour,
A Fraction of the Whole.

- a poem by my'shelf'

The books are all different sizes, which made it very difficult to balance them on top of one another, and they did topple over a couple of times. Not to mention, it was hard to take one whole picture with all the books and titles in the frame and legible, hence there are two photos now. 

I would love to know what you make of the poem, which is pretty much open to your interpretation. What I was going for was a fairly literal meaning, considering there is very little poetry in me. I don't remember where I first saw this idea, but this post was inspired by Kid Lit Geek's fantastic Book Spine Poetry.

And these are the books starring in the poem. I have read and I happen to like the bold ones. Clicking on the couple of highlighted names will lead you to my reviews.

A Short History of the World by H. G. Wells
Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra
Magic of the Angels by Jacqueline Rayner
Born Free by Joy Adamson
Going Solo by Roald Dahl
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
A Time to Kill by John Grisham
Men of Honour by Adam Nicolson
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

So what do you think of this? I would, of course, love to see some of your book title poetry!