Tag Archives: story

Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

This book has been staring at me from Waterstones’ shelves for months, tempting me with its old map Streets of London cover and its back-cover blurb that makes it seem like a cross between The Eyre Affair and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The last time I went in, it was on special offer. What else could I do but buy it?

And it doesn’t have the intense wordplay of Jasper Fforde, or the detailed, heavy, parallel history of Susannah Clarke. But it does have an incredibly readable voice and an eminently reasonable approach that makes completely bizarre events seem perfectly realistic. Oh, and a touch of heartbreaking sadness, but not unresolvable sadness.

Because reason is what you need, and sadness is what you get, when you can sense residual magic, are given evidence by a ghost, and have to negotiate a peace treaty between London’s river spirits. Oh, and people are having excessively violent reactions to annoyances, and then their faces fall off.

The two stories – the rivers and the violence – aren’t connected; they’re just simultaneous. Occasionally they coincide and intersect, but other than timing they’re completely separate. It’s absolutely great the way the stories intertwine without conflicting – not something that’s done a lot anymore, and Aaronovitch manages it well.

I really liked the glimpses into London’s physical history – the rivers and streams are all personified and their history and current status mentioned, including facts about the Thames area that I sort of knew of but didn’t concretely know before. And some of those details help with the investigation into the violence, which leads to a sort of cultural/social history touchstone that I vaguely recognised but didn’t know much about (Mr. Punch/Punch and Judy). I enjoy things that entertain as well as educate.

There’s a sequel (first chapter provided) which I’ll definitely keep an eye out for. It follows directly on from this one and absolutely acknowledges the events and their consequences. I think, as a series, it has great potential for continuation. In fact, I was thinking that it might make an interesting television show – the combination of police procedural and magic as presented here is so cool, and lends itself to serialisation very well. Producers, talk to me, I’ve got ideas.

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Periodic Tales, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

My grandfather was a chemist. He worked more with plastics and practicalities than with the specific, individual elements – certainly he worked more with the organic and elemental combinations than with the separation and discovery of new elements. But he helped instill in me an interest in what the world was made of. I loved chemistry in high school, and was good at it. (Physics was another matter – I am more interested in what things are made of then how they work, apparently.)

I am also interested in how things are organised and classified – what stories we tell about things to make sense of their place in the world. I love the periodic table, with its combination of organisation by size and by function. I am always amused by the different types of periodic tables that pop up – the periodic table of storytelling, or the periodic table of cupcakes.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that this was kind of a perfect book for me. It combined storytelling and chemistry. It explained some of the classifications of the elements, and the discovery of the elements, and the functions of the elements.  It discussed the cultural significance of gold versus silver, chrome versus platinum or titanium, iron and zinc. I learned more than I realised I didn’t know about ores and mining and geology.

It didn’t cover all of the elements, which was a bit disappointing. There wasn’t much inclusion of carbon, for example, or some of the other light elements (boron, lithium, etc.) There was a lot about the “rare earths”, which I didn’t know anything about, at all. But what it did include was, overall, fantastic. I doubt I’ll have retained all of it (I didn’t take notes or anything) but I think I’ve retained enough to at least have some pub quiz/trivia night answers handy.

The other thing that it didn’t include, which was incredibly frustrating at times, was a copy of the periodic table itself. This would have been so useful, especially when he was talking about some of the lesser-known elements (Germanium, for example), just to get a sense of where they were on the chart. It even would have been nice with the better-known elements, just as a reminder of things like their chemical symbol. (Especially since he mentions the chemical symbol of silver, for example.)  I read this book in places where I didn’t have easy internet access – I couldn’t just go and look up the periodic table – and I only have it memorized through neon on a good day.

But that’s a relatively petty frustration when it comes to such an interesting topic. It ultimately doesn’t matter that I didn’t have a table on which to base myself when he was detailing the discovery and different light colours of sodium and neon and argon, or the discovery of various radioactive elements, or his search for samples of the elements that he could put in his own physical periodic table.

It may not have made me want to run out and become a chemist, but it definitely made me more aware of the presence and use of specific elements in our daily world – and that is no bad thing.

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Certain Girls, by Jennifer Weiner

It’s been years since I read Good in Bed, but there are some things that stay with you. The shock of that one scene, the frantic scanning to find out whether the baby would be okay, and most of all, how much I liked Cannie.

Certain Girls is Joy’s book, though. Cannie is a point-of-view character, and stuff happens to Cannie, but the main point of the book is to detail the changing situation between mother and daughter, between teenager and the world. This is made absolutely clear in the first two chapters. The first chapter, Cannie’s, includes a list of all the things that they do together and all the ways that they are close. The second chapter, Joy’s, includes the same list but as a list of reasons why Joy can’t stand her mother.

Just like Good in Bed, it’s a tumultuous time in their lives. Joy is approaching thirteen, which is a difficult time for anyone, and she’s also secretly discovering the truth about her conception and birth – ultimately, about all her male ancestors (Cannie’s dad is included in her formerly idealised disappointments). She surreptitiously reads Cannie’s book (taking it as autobiographical),  overhears a devastating conversation between her father and his wife, and flies across the country to try to meet her grandfather. Pretty big stuff for a thirteen-year-old to deal with, on top of the normal stuff that a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl has to deal with – bat mitzvah planning, schoolwork, first crushes, peer pressure, and the need to be treated as both an adult and a child simultaneously.

Just like Good in Bed, though, there’s a stunning and devastating moment about two-thirds of the way through that sets the book and the characters on a completely different path.  But while that scene in Good in Bed feels natural and important and organic, here it feels jarring. And it’s the type of thing that is jarring in real life, but from a narrative perspective, it doesn’t quite work for me. I mean, she makes it work because she’s a good writer. But it doesn’t work nearly as well as the analogous scene in Good in Bed. It takes over the rest of the novel, and not necessarily in a good way. It doesn’t reshape what went before; it just overshadows everything else. And again, that’s what an event like that does in real life, but it feels forced here. “Oh, we need some kind of trauma and something to get Cannie writing again. I know!….”

Sidenote: why does suffering/trauma/difficult life situation always equate to prolific writing?  Is my problem just that I’ve been too relatively happy over my life? Please someone write a book about a writer that doesn’t imply that you need suffering in order to be successful….

I did like Certain Girls, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read Good in Bed. It’s not the best introduction to Weiner’s work, if only because most of the story and character development for both Cannie and Joy rely so heavily on the events of Good in Bed.  If you have read the first one, though, this is a great way to catch up with Cannie and Joy – despite the abrupt heartbreak that leads to the end.

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Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

After Patrick Rothfuss, I have really high standards for “epic” fantasy. GRRM has set up a series that is often seen as the current epitome of epic fantasy – with the fear that he and it, like Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time, will continue until the series inadvertently outlives the author. It made for a natural follow-up while I was still in an epic fantasy mood – and the recent series in on our to-be-watched list.

Writing-wise, it’s not nearly as captivating to me as Rothfuss was. Oh, it’s not bad – there are moments that suck you in, and the concept of the world (a land where seasons last for years) is intriguing, but it’s more about the characters than the world right now. And looking at it relatively impartially or analytically, the characters are basically just stereotypes. Stereotypes with feeling, of course, and well-crafted stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless. The most interesting characters so far are the ones who don’t quite fit the stereotype, or the ones that you hope don’t: Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love the Starks, as you’re supposed to, and I despise the Lannisters, as you’re supposed to. But that’s almost one of the problems: you’re so clearly supposed to. They are all painted with such broad strokes that it’s too obvious what you’re supposed to feel. I gasped with horror – out loud, even –at certain plot points (I won’t spoil them for you) and felt a smug satisfaction at others. But I also felt like hissing every time certain characters appeared and cheering for others. It’s like a melodrama.

There’s not a lot more I can say about it without spoiling things or having read the rest of the series – because, after all, it is the first in a series. It’s entirely possible that some of the things that I felt were lacking in this book (world-building, mostly) will be more fully explored in later books. I’m definitely hopeful that the Wall and the Others will be more fully explored later – they’ve been hinted at so far, and briefly met, but this book didn’t really deal with them at all. (One of the reasons that I think Jon Snow is a more interesting character is because his storyline deals less with the “game of thrones” part of the world and more with the fantasy elements.)

I don’t own the second book, and I have at least two dozen unread books around that I do own, so I am not sure when I’m going to get to the rest of the series. It probably won’t be too long, though – especially if the rest of the series is also filmed, giving me more of an impetus to read the rest.

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The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

The goal of reading is to immerse yourself in another world. To find yourself in a place, a time, a situation that becomes so real to you that it’s a wrench when you realise that they were words on a page. I remember reading a book with a blind protagonist when I was a teenager (I think it was The Cay but I can’t be 100% sure now, after fifteen-ish years) and being surprised when I finished that I could see. Intellectually I knew that, of course I could see, I was reading, but the world the author had created was so non-visual that it was a shock to come out of it.

I read The Name of the Wind mostly in half-hour spurts, my lunch break at work. Almost every day that I read it, I was surprised by the beeping of my break timer. I finally got to the point where I couldn’t take being wrenched out of the world anymore, so I avoided any kind of social/online interaction and just finished it.

And then I came downstairs and said, “I want to be back in this world. I’m ordering the sequel.” (I did check to see if it was at the local library, but all the copies are out and I seriously don’t want to wait that long.)

It’s hard to describe this book in a way that’s not trite. It’s an epic fantasy novel, with the medieval-esque setting and the swords and sorcery aspects of that – but it keeps from becoming clichéd. It’s also the first in a series. And it’s an amazing feat of worldbuilding.

I’m not even sure how he did it. With some authors, you can see how they do the worldbuilding. It may be skilful, but you can see that this is where they’re telling about the religion and this is where they’re laying out the social structure. There’s some of that in The Name of the Wind of course, but it’s often very subtle. The storytelling structure is incredibly effective, weaving hints and foreshadowing through the “present-day” bits as well as through the story. The world that he develops and presents is so incredibly real that it is almost painful to leave it.

Favourite quotable bit: Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of fire. A name is the fire itself.

The whole book isn’t in that vein, of course: that passage was said by a professor at the university where the main character is studying. But it basically sums up the motivation of the main character and, presumably, the impetus for the series. Words and communication of various forms – especially music, and especially singing, the combination of music and words – are so important throughout this book. People die because they say or sing the wrong things; names – pure names, not just the words – have immeasurable power; the stories told create the event and the character.

I don’t want to say too much about the story itself, in part because it’s the first in a series. This book, while a book in itself and a story in itself, is also very much only the beginning of the story. It sets up the world and the characters and the conflict, but the conflict is not even close to being resolved, or even completely revealed.

It’s an incredible world, and I can’t wait to be in it again.

(Sidenote: This book didn’t completely register on my radar for a long time. I’d heard the name, but got it confused with The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which I read several years ago. It wasn’t until the sequel came out a few months ago, and a lot was being written about Patrick Rothfuss, that it clicked with me that they were different books. Also, The Shadow of the Wind is very good, and also has a relatively recent sequel, which I have not yet read and still want to.)

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One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, by Jasper Fforde

You may remember that I love Jasper Fforde. Hearing him speak on the Shades of Grey book tour is still one of the highlights of my literary life, and I’ve been looking forward to the fifth Thursday Next book for literally years. I love the world of Thursday Next and it’s so much fun to be back in it.

This one is a bit more complicated than the other Thursday Next books (and if you’ve read them, you know that that’s saying quite a lot). The world of Thursday Next is an alternate reality to our world, first of all – a world where literature is the primary form of … everything. Political parties are formed around adherents of specific authors, Richard III is “interactive” in the same way that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is in our world, and there is an MI5-type organisation which has books and book-related activities under its jurisdiction (forgeries and the like). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: there’s so much more to this world than that, but those are the easiest to relate.

And within the alternate reality that is the Thursday Next world, there are books about Thursday Next. These books are similar to, but not identical to, the Thursday Next books that exist in our world.

Oh, and also? There is an alternate reality within the alternate reality, where books are actually real, where characters exist when they’re not being read. In this Bookworld, there is a Thursday Next who is the written Thursday, portraying Thursday’s adventures to her readers in the “real” Thursday Next world. (There was a previous written Thursday, but the real-world Thursday didn’t like how the previous written Thursday was being read, so they got a new generic character to become Thursday, Thursday-approved.)

Confused yet? I swear, it makes more sense when you actually read through the series.

So, anyway, there are several versions of Thursday. And one of them is missing in this book. And one of them has to figure out where the missing one is, as well as various other issues that the missing Thursday was involved in, and, to some extent, who she is as well.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is the previously-mentioned complications. The other Thursday Next novels weren’t stand-alones, by any stretch of the imagination, but they didn’t rely quite as much on previous readings of the series. The reader, if I recall correctly, was reminded of quite a bit more detail in the middle three books , where in this book there are references that assume that you’ve read through the rest of the series. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading the fifth book in a series you’ve most likely read the previous books, but this one is not going to bring in many if any new readers.

It also didn’t have quite as much of the “fun” stuff of the other four books: the footnoterphone, Mycroft and his inventions, some of the intrigues of the “real” world. They were mentioned, but not used, and that was vaguely disappointing.

It’s good, though. It’s got a bit of a different feel than the others (although I definitely need a massive reread. You know, to make sure….) and some of the more philosophical/psychological issues that are explored by the end are very interesting. It’s one of the things that Fforde does really well: the blurred lines between fiction and reality. It’s a theme he’s explored in all of his books, not just the Thursday Next ones (although it is most explicit in Thursday Next) and he does it better than most. However, you definitely need to read the entire series before you read One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.

Of course, everyone who’s at all interested in British literature and/or wordplay needs to read The Eyre Affair anyway….

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A Suitable Boy

My God, I love Vikram Seth’s writing. An Equal Music has been near the top of my “favourite books” list for ages, and often makes an appearance on my Desert Island list. A Suitable Boy may join it there.

I expected to like A Suitable Boy – besides Vikram Seth, it was recommended and loaned to me by someone whose opinion I trust and value. But I didn’t realise how absorbed in it I would become. I lived with those families while I was reading. I empathised with everyone (even Mrs Rupa Mehra, much as I wanted to strangle her at times). Once I reached the point where I had a handle on who was who, and who was connected to whom, there was very little that I wanted to do except find out what happened to them. And this was a little bit odd to me, because India doesn’t particularly interest me. I’ve never had a burning desire to go there, to learn Hindi or Urdu, to figure out the details of the caste system or the Raj. But after reading A Suitable Boy, I feel like I have a sense of India’s history – at least their colonial and post-Partition history. It’s kind of like Wild Swans in that way: Wild Swans gave me an incredible sense of 20th century China. I still don’t want to go there (although I wouldn’t say no), but I feel like I understand a little bit more about it.

It also helps me understand a little bit about one of my friends. A close friend of mine – one of my best friends since high school – is a first- generation Indian. Knowing her gave me a little bit of a basis for understanding the basics of the culture in A Suitable Boy,  and reading it gave me a bit more of a sense of what her family life (may) be like. I’m not saying that her life is exactly like that, of course, because I don’t know – but her family lived through that time period in India, and I know that at least some of the underlying attitudes are still similar.

There’s so much to say about this book that I hardly know where to start. I suppose the first place to start is the story. It’s not a “story” in that it doesn’t have a “plot” in the page-turner sense. It’s more of an exploration – an exploration of the family events in some interconnected characters with an integrated background of the political and national events of India after Partition (into majority-Hindu-India and majority-Muslim-Pakistan). The main “story” is about the attempts to find a “suitable boy” for the youngest daughter of one of the families, but the book incorporates many other stories: political stories, personal stories, professional stories. If I wanted to be all philosophical and stuff, I’d say it’s an exploration of what makes someone “suitable”: who decides what is suitable, and in what situations? What is suitable in one situation is not necessarily suitable in another. What makes one person suited to another is what makes them anathema to someone else – sometimes someone else closely connected. What makes someone suitable for his (or her) profession may be what makes them unsuitable for something else. And sometimes what you think is suitable in the short-term may turn out to be unsuitable in the long-term.  …..and now the word “suitable” and all related “suit-” based words look odd to me.

At the top, I mentioned Vikram Seth’s writing. He’s just amazing and captivating. He comes up with images that could be clichéd if anyone other than him used them, but when he does so, they are fresh and beautiful. The first one I noticed and marked – that sticks with me – is the image of 2s as “swan-like” – the exact quotation is something like “swan-like digits bumping into each other” (in the 2+2=4 idea). It makes me want to come up with creative images for all the other digits as well – and then personalities for the bigger, multi-digit numbers based on their digits’ images.

There are also just lines that make me giggle, like “Dipankar was fond of making remarks such as, ‘It is all the Void,’ at breakfast, thus casting a mystical aura over the scrambled eggs.”  Mystical scrambled eggs amuse me. Also the inherent humour and imperialist attitude (on the part of the character, clearly undercut) in something like this: “Twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound was infinitely more logical than four pice to the anna and sixteen annas to the rupee.”

He’s also got a nearly perfect sense of character. I knew I was going to love Lata near the beginning, and my identification with her was cemented with this line in chapter 3: “ ‘Oh, I love you too,” said Lata, stating a fact that was completely obvious to her and therefore should have been obvious to him.” That is so much how I feel sometimes about my emotions that it’s almost scary. And the rest of the book carried that identification through – caught between doing what she wants to do and fulfilling the expectations of her family, caught between doing what she longs to do and doing what she knows or believes will be best long-term, even if it means short-term pain.

Seth is also really, really good at educating without lecturing. There were parts of A Suitable Boy that reminded me of Tolstoy, in the almost info-dump “state of the world” descriptions. But where Tolstoy puts lectures in the mouths or minds of his characters, Seth uses his characters to show the lectures. It’s a subtle distinction – and other people might see it as just as intrusive as Tolstoy’s – but to me, the information sections seemed more organic. It made sense for the political minister to ponder the state of the country when he was one of the authors of the land reform bill (and when a Muslim friend of his would be most affected by it). It made sense for the participants at a Hindu festival, or a Muslim festival, to reflect on the meaning and motivations for the festival. It made sense for the older women – both Hindu and Muslim – to think back to the struggles for independence and the chaos surrounding Partition. It felt natural to the characters, in a way that Levin’s agricultural obsession and reflections on the life of the peasants (in Anna Karenina) didn’t always.

There’s so much in this book – so many issues that it deals with, so many personality types it covers, so much history that it incorporates. After finishing it, I just wanted to read it again. One of the cover blurbs says that “it will stay with you for the rest of your life” – and that’s not an exaggeration.

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