a blank slate

a blank slate

Month: April 2014

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

I don’t remember much of The Kite Runner, I knew the story before I read it, and I read it over months of interruptions. I did love A Thousand Splendid Suns and it’s vivid in my memory. After borrowing And The Mountains Echoed from my friend, I read some twenty pages before I put it on the shelf, where it then sat waiting for a month. When I picked it up, I reread those twenty pages and was fully sucked into it. I was done by the next afternoon and have been digesting the story ever since. For once, I didn’t read the Goodreads or Amazon reviews before writing mine, because they just wouldn’t matter. I know people love his two earlier books, but this was the best yet for me. Unlike the other two, And The Mountains Echoes isn’t focused on one story and is broad in its scope. 
Hosseini is an adept storyteller and in this book, he’s held nothing back, effortlessly shifting points of view and flitting timelines. The book begins with a man telling his children, Pari and Abdullah, a fable. It’s about a poor family in a small village, where a devil visits every winter to take away a child. This year, the man gives up his favourite youngest boy to the devil, because sometimes a finger has to be cut to save the hand. But the man can’t live without his boy, and he sets off to bring him back. At the devil’s castle, he discovers that all the boys that are taken play together in a heavenly garden. The man has to choose – he can bring his kid back to their pathetic life because he misses him, or he could let the boy stay on happily, but forget all about his family.
And then we realize that the man telling the fable, a poor father, is about to do just that. Give away his youngest daughter, sell Pari to a rich family in Kabul, where the kids’ uncle works as a chauffeur. Abdullah and Pari, the brother and sister who depend wholly on each other are ripped apart. But this book isn’t just about whether they reunite, it’s about reconciling with the past and making the best of the present and the future.

“They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.”

It’s impossible to say what and whom I liked without giving away spoilers. So let me say the book made me wonder about people’s lives, how so much goes on unnoticed behind close doors and smiling faces, how things rarely turn out the way we plan but how that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, how we may lose someone along the way, only to grow to depend on someone else, how we find consolation in unexpected places and people, how we forgive our own mistakes so easily, because we know we can’t change history, how life just goes on, no matter if we want it to. 
The book is about many big and small stories, threaded together to form an intricate world. Everything mentioned along the way is significant, you never know where the author will take you next. Be it the story of a tree in a village, a box of feathers collected by a little girl, or a slightly charred photograph of a young woman on a beach. From the story of a chauffeur in Kabul who loves his mistress, you go back into the past to the girl who let envy ruin her sister’s life and then you’re led forward to an Afghan hotel in America run by man whose daughter, Pari, has been named after the sister he’d lost all those years ago.
Here are some wonderful passages I bookmarked and why I liked them.

(The chauffeur Nabi on his mistress, the poet Nila Wahdati, after she’s visited his village. This reminded me of Wordsworth, how poetry is supposedly about the humble and rustic life, written in the real language of men and how wrong it is when put into perspective.)

That night, the poem she chose to read caught me off guard. It was about a man and his wife, in the village, mourning the death of the infant they had lost to the winter cold. The guests seemed to love the poem, judging by the nods and the murmurs of approval around the room, and by their hearty applause when Nila looked up from the page. Still, I felt some surprise, and disappointment, that my sister’s misfortune had been used to entertain guests, and I could not shake the sense that some vague betrayal had been committed. 

(Referring to the near murder of a little girl by her uncle, after he slaughtered her family. Idris’s awkward courtesy was disturbingly easy to relate to, in contrast to the show of airs that his cousin Timur put on, of concern and philanthropy. When it came to actually doing good, Timur’s falsities bore better results than Idris’s hypocritical importance on good intentions. It hurts me to think of myself the only-opinions-haver. I’d be easily sucked back into my own life; it’s better to be someone who may not care but does help, anyway.)

Even if he could talk, which he cannot at the moment, Idris wouldn’t know the proper thing to say. He might have said something, some offering of impotent outrage, if this had been the work of the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or some megalomaniacal Mujahideen commander. But this cannot be blamed on Hekmatyar, or Mullah Omar, or Bin Laden, or Bush and his War on Terror. The ordinary, utterly mundane reason behind the massacre makes it somehow more terrible, far more depressing. The word senseless springs to mind, and Idris thwarts it. It’s what people always say. A senseless act of violence. A senseless murder. As if you could commit sensible murder. 

(Nila Wahdati, poet, in an interview, on the daughter no one knows she’d adopted, Pari. This made me think of all those poor, hard, lined faces people keep taking photographs of in the name of beauty. As if you could know what goes on behind those eyes. As if all the romantic fancies about hardship and simplistic beauty could match either the terror or the happiness of someone else’s life. I takes a lot more than a picture to know the truth about a person, I think.)

I didn’t want her turned, against both her will and nature, into one of those diligent, sad women who are bent on a lifelong course of quiet servitude, forever in fear of showing, saying or doing the wrong thing. Women who are admired by some in the West – here in France, for instance – turned into heroines for their hard lives, admired from a distance by those who couldn’t bear even one day of walking in their shoes. Women who see their desires doused and their dreams renounced, and yet – and this is the worst of it, Monsieur Boustouler – if you meet them, they smile and pretend they have no misgivings at all. As though they lead enviable lives. But you look closely and you see the helpless look, the desperation, and how it belies all their show of good humour. It is quite pathetic.

(Markos, the plastic surgeon from Greece now living in the Wahdati’s old house. I would have gladly had the book end right here, but the actual ending, some fifty pages down the line, is surprisingly touching too.)

If I’ve learnt anything in Kabul, it’s that human behavior is messy and unpredictable and unconcerned with convenient symmetries. But I find comfort in it, in the idea of a pattern, or a narrative of my life taking shape, like a photograph in a darkroom, a story that slowly emerges and affirms the good I have always wanted to see in myself. It sustains me, this story.

I often say that some books are worth trudging through to the end because the final showdown is worth the few slow parts in the middle. In case of this book, if it doesn’t grip you by the fifth chapter, it probably won’t till the finish. But it’s worth a try, definitely. I highly recommend this read to anyone who likes detailed, emotional, generation-spanning stories. 

“Aren’t we hooked on phonics?” – Top Ten Tuesday, Gilmore Girls and Books

I originally wrote this post two years ago. I have reposted it here, because it kind of almost fits the theme for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted at The Broke and the BookishTop Ten Books If You Like a TV show / movie / play, etc.
These are books you should read if you like Gilmore Girls, but not because they’re like Gilmore Girls. These are books referenced on the TV show. If you’ve seen it you know how literature-centric anything Rory does is. And the kind of books, movies and songs they like says a lot about the characters. So – if you loved Rory and Lorelai like I did, you’d want to read on: 
Gilmore Girls is undoubtedly the most bookish TV show I have
ever come across. While the eccentric towns-people, the best-friend Mom and the
regular small-town shindigs never fail to irritate me, I do love the witty,
pop-culture-laden dialogue and the coffee love.
Rory Gilmore has an admirable amount of books stacked on her bookshelf and is
always seen with a book in her hand. Dean liked watching Rory read and Jess and
Rory bonded largely over books. There are, naturally, many Rory Gilmore Reading
Challenges and Book Clubs out there. In fact, WB had released a list
of Rory Gilmore’s reads. I only discovered them very recently.

But I have, over time, read a lot of books and authors
because my favourite characters (mostly Jess and Rory) from Gilmore Girls
mentioned reading and liking them:
1. Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust – Lorelai borrows
this from Max Medina (Ah, Max, and his very English-Professor-ey bookshelf) Proust was a huge but definitely rewarding read.
2. Post Office by Charles Bukowski – Paris
and Jess argued over this one. According to Paris, it’s a typical guy response
to worship Kerouac and Bukowski, but never try anyone like Jane Austen. And then Jess says that he has read Jane Austen and that she would have liked
3. On the Road by Jack Kerouac – Kerouac is
mentioned a lot throughout the series. According to Rory, the Beats expose you
to a world you wouldn’t have otherwise known; that’s what great writing is
about. This book was good, though somewhat pretentious, but I preferred Bukowski’s style to Kerouac’s.
4. Please Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of
the Punk Movement by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain
 – The book
is just (and you wouldn’t find this word in my usual vocabulary) insane. It’s
the history of punk music written through and by people who actually lived it.
Jess recommends this to Rory.
5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – I chose
reading this book over War and Peace, of which my sister has a copy also,
because it is one of Rory’s favourite books. Dean thinks it’s impossible that
every name in the book ends with “sky”, and Rory convinces him to
read it, because Tolstoy apparently wrote it for the masses, so you don’t have
to be very literary to get it. I did love the book, but I disagree.
6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain –
This is another of Rory’s favourites; though I don’t remember where this is
mentioned. I do remember that Rory made Lorelai celebrate Rory’s twelfth
birthday in a Mark Twain museum!
7. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – I’d read an abridged version a long time ago, but I re-read it when I watched that Gilmore Girls episode where Rory calls Jess “Dodger” for stealing her book (Howl.) Incidentally, I also read Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, which I adored, by the way. 
8. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – This is
the book that Jess is reading when he enters a class late, and is supposed to
be writing a test. He borrows a pencil from Lane, tilts the book and starts
writing (notes, probably) in the margin.
9. Howl and other Poems by Allen Ginsberg –
This is the first book of poetry I have ever dared and managed to read; and
only because, Jess is supposed to have read it “about forty times”,
which automatically means it’s good.
10. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – I
read Ernest Hemingway basically because of the time Rory promises to give
“the painful Ernest Hemingway a try” if Jess finishes reading The
Fountainhead. Jess also tells Rory, “Ernest only has lovely things to say
about you.”
Some of the authors mentioned or featured on the show that I still want to read are John Steinbeck, Tom Woolfe, Hunter Thompson and Alexander Pushkin.

(“Aren’t we hooked on phonics?” is what Jess comments when he first sees Rory’s overflowing bookshelf!) 

As you can probably see, Gilmore Girls has influenced a lot
of my reading. Actually, it has also influenced a lot of my music and movie
tastes. Do you like the show or any of the books I have mentioned? And would
you recommend any other bookish television show or movie?

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 and 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, almost a disappointment.

I don’t like to write “bad reviews” and honestly, this book made a quick breezy read that, on any other day, I would have found pretty good. My high expectations got in the way.

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.

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’. I get it, all these instances are okay in every fairy tale, 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. 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.

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

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…

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


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.

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!

Butterfly Season by Natasha Ahmed

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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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.

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.

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?

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 eccentric 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

“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?