Saturday, June 18, 2016

Recommended Read: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

"As part of leaving Bloomington for college and my brand-new start, I'd made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days, I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her. If anyone asked about my family, I admitted to two parents, still married, and one brother, older, who travelled a lot. Not mentioning Fern was first a decision, and later a habit, hard and painful even now to break." 

How do I write about this book without mentioning the one detail that forms the crux of it's beginning, middle and its end? I could "start in the middle" as our narrator, Rosemary Cooke does and take it from there.  But I would still find it hard to write a good enough recommendation that you probably could get from the blurb anyway.

So how do I begin? Do I tell you about Fern? It's impossible to leave her out of this because she's the reason the characters' lives turn upside down. But telling you about her right now would also change the way you approach the novel and influence your judgement right from the start. I'm sure you're not one to trivialise certain details of family life. But if you know about Fern before you get to it yourself, you won't appreciate the bigger picture,

If it wasn't for Fern's disappearance, Rosemary would probably not spend her time and energy avoiding the subject of her family. Their brother Lowell would not have run away from home before graduating high school. If it wasn't for her reluctant abandonment to the jowls of science, their mother would not be prone to depression and would still perhaps play the piano. The family would not have left their sprawling farm house for homes that were smaller and smaller to din out the silence and emptiness of a shattered nest.

How do I begin to describe how utterly beautiful and heartbreaking this novel is without adding spoilers? As you can see, I'm trying... really hard.

So the book starts in the middle, in the year 1996 when Rosemary Cooke's in the 5th year of college. She has a secret and it involves her family. Years ago, her sister Fern was plucked from their lives and never spoken of ever again. Fern or the subject of her, isn't buried. But her fate and the feelings it incited in the family, are.

I think it's okay to tell you that Fern did not die in an accident nor was she kidnapped with a child snatcher. Fowler makes that clear pretty much from the start. That's actually what draws you into the novel because a) curiosity and b) once you start reading it, the book is so immersive, there's no turning back.

I see that haven't written much about it without giving it away, have I? So let me try one last time to do this recommendation justice.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel about a child who is loved so dearly that her disappearance breaks her whole family. But what's truly tragic is that the while Cookes force themselves to give her away believing it was for the greater good which, really, is a matter of perspective but I'll tell you right away that it wasn't.

So for the first time I'm asking you to trust me and just read the damn book because it's good. Like really, really good. It won't change your life. It won't make you bawl but it will make you well up every once in a while. It will give you fresh fodder to analyse things you already know about science, psychology and family life.

Read it because it is very well written and will keep you hooked right to the end. But most importantly, it may not force you to see things you'd rather not but it will make a great case for opening your eyes.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Review: The Dream Thieves (Book 2 in The Raven Cycle)

It started off with promise but somewhere along the way, Maggie Stiefvater's The Dream Thieves, book two in The Raven Cycle series, loses interest in itself.

Perhaps it's in the abundance of imagery that staggers the progression of the story. Or in the forced manner in which Adam seems to be changing, going from a quiet, intelligent and poor but proud boy, to someone seriously whiney and exasperating to read as a character. But really, I think it fails because there just isn't enough meat in the story to justify 453 pages.

The Dream Thieves has an intriguing enough start. We learn that Ronan Lynch can pull things out of his dreams. These are mostly terrible things such as the Night Terrors, dark and evil creatures with beaks for mouths and sharp craws for hands that are out of slash him to ribbons. In the meanwhile, Gansey's search for Glendower is put on hold by the disappearance of Cabeswater, the ancient, magical forest they discovered in the last book. Blue starts to struggle with her feelings for Adam, and realises that she's drawn to Gansey, knowing full well how that's going to turn out after her vision of the two of them having their first and last kiss in the previous book. Noah too seems to be less there than usual, disappearing completely in the second half just like Cabeswater.

The book also introduces a Ronan's formidable nemesis and fatal attraction, the psychopathic Kavinsky who disregards personal and public safety in favour of dangerous drag races and Fourth of July explosions. We also get to meet The Grey Man, a mysterious assassin in search for an object that can invade dreams for the treasures that lie there.

The premise is fascinating and for that Stiefvater's imagination needs to be lauded. It's a pity that the world she weaves in her head reads more like a series of dreams, fascinating when you're penning it into a diary, but lacking in storytelling when you try to put them together.

The novel needed more. Be it more plot connectors or hooks that draw you from one chapter to the next and from this book to the third.

Frankly, I'm going to have to take a break from this series because unlike Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, heck, even Twilight, the series isn't immersive enough to keep you hooked from one book to the next.

The Ravel Boys helped the series off to a good start. But The Dream Thieves makes me wonder if Steifvater is just stretching the series on just for the sake of it.

I honestly believe this book was an unnecessary detour to a very promising story, shifting the reader's focus from the real prize, the unearthing of Welsh legend, Glendower.

I'm still going to finish this series because I've committed to it and I genuinely like it. But yes, a break is is order before I can delve into the next one because finishing this book was felt like a chore. And it will take me some time to get over that.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Initial thoughts on The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater

It's been around eight months since I read a book that wasn't backlit. Yes, ink and paper, and my beloved third generation Kindle are gathering dust on the beautiful bookshelves we built shortly after moving to Bangalore.

Most of my reading is now done in my phone as it's the only gadget I have on my person at all times between feeds and naps and feeds and more naps. I'm not complaining because the books I have been reading this last year aren't the sort you'd want to collect in physical form. Also, since most of my reading is done either with the curtains drawn during the day or with the lights out at night -- motherhood is a strange adventure -- my good, old Kindle isn't getting much use either. 

But every once in a while, I come across a book that I wish I could just read, touch, smell and lovingly display on my bookshelf until the end of time. And while I've only just started Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Cycle series, I already know that these are books I would have loved to add to my collection.

While I'm a huge fan of Young Adult fiction, I was afraid that I had read every good title in the series before the genre and its sub-genres became formulaic. Witches, vampires, werwolves and trolls; dying girl loves boy who dies first, suicidal girl loves manic depressive... Ok, about this second set of examples, I have to justify myself by saying that I have nothing whatsoever against books about star crossed lovers, torn apart painful circumstances that are very, very real. I'm just against writing that jumps on the bandwagon of whatever is making YA enthusiasts swoon and/or cry. It's like publishers are picking novels they think will find their way to the top of your Recommended Reads list on Amazon and GoodReads. Seriously, after a while, the stories start to sound like clothes that tumbled about in a washer-drier stained by one bleeding red sock. 

When I first read the blurb for The Raven Boys, book one in the series, I was absolutely sure that this was going to be no different in essence from titles such as The Vampire Diaries and Bloodlines. But the price of the book, twice as much as mass fiction bestsellers, caught my fancy. So I decided to download a sample because what had I to lose, right? 

I'm so glad I did because this series has me absolutely hooked! And this is despite the fact that the blurb heavily emphasises that protagonist is fated to kill her true love with a kiss. Really, it should be talking about a young man's intellectual obsession with finding the last Welsh ruler who is fabled to be asleep since the 15th Century and whoever wakes him will be granted a favour. Set in a small town that is a hotbed of spiritual energy, our protagonist is joined by four misfits who each have their own reason for helping him out.

What I love about the novels is that they're driven by characters whose backstories and personal battles fuel the plot. It's also so much more than fantasy/paranormal fiction because every theme built up in the book has a basis in actual fact. Like the Ley Lines for instance, are places theorised for their intense mystical and spiritual energy along significant landforms. The motely crew's obsession with the lines and their hunt for Owen Glendower, is an intense study into history, mythology, religion and dead languages.

As readers we get a fascinating insight into all of this with a pretty immersive story to go with it. What's more is that while there is a love angle to the story, it's more of a detail, one of many in a series that's filled with so many I just can't wait to see how they all come together in the end.

My reading had reached a plateau this last year and I was afraid that I would be stuck like that forever. Sure, the view was pretty scenic but it was as good as gazing at everything and nothing at the same time. I'm glad to have discovered this series which is promising to be a good ascent back into the world of literature. I'm not expecting a life changing experience here, as was the case with the Harry Potter series and Elenor and Park. But it's good to be back on track and see where I go. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Reader’s Roadblock, the Reset Button and All Aboard the Hogwarts Express!

Ever so often, we all hit a roadblock in our reading habits. Mine started around a year ago when I couldn’t focus on anything that wasn’t YA or a thriller.

It started with Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, a masala entertainer if ever there was one! Eerie. So enthralling. So easy… I just couldn’t bring myself to read anything dissimilar after that. 

With a baby on the way, I wasn’t getting out much either. I had stopped browsing at local bookshops. I wasn’t socialising at much. I’d also stopped my drunken downloads (more on this in a future post). All I was going by was the ‘Suggested’ section on my Amazon account. And with Flynn as inspiration, the suggested reads cropping up everywhere I looked were also as such.

The Girl on the Train. Before I Fall Asleep. The Devotion of Suspect X. The Fault In Our Stars. All The Bright Places. And so on and so forth.

I was reading a lot, no doubt about it. And with a baby in my arms by September, I found myself devouring a book every three days – there’s very little to do when you’re in a chair, feeding at all hours during the day and night.

But then it got to a point where I realised that’s all I was doing. Reading. Keeping myself entertained. Looking at words and forming moving pictures in my mind.

That’s good enough, isn’t it? Keeping the cogs turning? No. It isn't.

What kind of ‘reading’ are we doing if we aren’t expanding our minds? If we get to the last page and then immediately download the next book we see that’s closest in promised effect to the one we just finished? "Fans of Gillian Flynn will love this..." "The Gillian Flynn of Scandinavia..." "So much better than Gillian Flynn..."

Comfort makes me uncomfortable. It makes me aware that I’m stationary. It also screams at me that I have a choice. I could sit here in my little coracle and go round and around. Or I could pull out a paddle and try to get somewhere.

Maybe I’ll get dizzy just going around in circles. Maybe I’ll get lucky and move in a certain direction. I’d also be running the risk of tipping over and getting drenched. And you know what? All of these things are still much better than sitting stationary, too afraid to tip over.

Clearly, I’m at a roadblock. But it isn’t the first time I’ve been here. 

I’m frazzled and I don’t like it one bit. So I’ve taken a U-Turn and traced my steps back to a place in which I always find comfort and inspiration. I called it my Reset Button and it’s triggered by these words:

When Mr and Mrs Dursley woke up on the dull, grey Tuesday our story starts, there was nothing about the cloudy sky outside to suggest strange and mysterious things would soon be happening all over the country.

Sure, it's a bit of a step back. But it isn't a setback. It's a reset in the form of a book I once knew like rote, the words just flew off the page. But it's never let me down. And over the next few weeks, I hope to share this journey back out of the rabbit hole on this space.

Do you have a book, author or passage that acts as your reset button? Share it with us in the comments section below. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Three Reading Resolutions for 2016

When you’re passionate about something, it won’t do to set yourself insane targets. You just end up turning it into a chore, something that stresses you out, rather than something you love. Of course, being a total grasshopper isn’t going to help either. Structure and discipline are imperative to doing justice to your efforts.

Over the years, I’ve set many resolutions. Read a book a week. Write a book in three months. Review 100 books a year (I ended up speed reading… all right. Skimming through, before I cried just a little, got angry with high achievers who makes things look so easy and abandoned the idea altogether). Setting stringent targets has never worked out for me. Obviously. It isn’t so much the stress of achieving so much, as the standard I expect from my work. Unwittingly, I have set myself up for failure year after bloody year!

But call me an optimist, fool… masochist… I’ll be damned if I don’t make any resolutions this year! What else is there to look forward to after the season of excesses ends and the New Year begins?
This year however, I’m going to try and be a little smarter and go for quality and structure over quantity and chaos! Here goes:

1. Enough with the bestsellers, bestselling authors and books that got turned into movies… I feel like I’ve spent all of last year reading fast paced, bestselling literature. It’s been fun, formulaic, easy and escapist. But now it’s time to get back to reading books that actually challenge and change me as a person.

2. Read more African literature! Over the last few months, I noticed that my shelves were bursting at the seams with books from the US and UK. There are even a few from Australia and a sizable number from Japan. What I’m seriously lacking, however, is literature from Africa. How is that possible? Is that normal for a literary blogger? 2016 is the year to change that! This year, I’m going to try and make every second book I read come from an African author.

3. Read more South Asian novels, especially literature in translation: As I spent the end of the year reliving my days as a student of literature with Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman, I started to wonder why I don’t read more literature from South Asia, especially literature in translation! Have I become lazy in my reading habits or am I simply happier escaping to the words of the West rather than see what my own kin have to say? I’m not saying that I should be boycotting anything. But yes, it’s important to balance it out with a few voices from my own neighbourhood.

I am tempted to add more resolutions to this list. Stuff like: Write at least one blog post a week. Experiment with posts so you can add variety beyond the regular reviews, rants and raves. Etc. But I’m not going to do that because this year, I truly want to enjoy The Caterpillar Café. No point burdening the poor blog with my own big promises and unrealistic expectations, eh?

I hope you set yourself some good quality resolutions that set you up for cheers over chaos too! Here’s wishing you a Happy Christmas and a spectacular New Year.


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