Randoms, Books, Lost

Book Review: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Oh, what an absolute gem of a book.

Quiet and unassuming on the surface, yet so utterly charming and thought-provoking. Bon Agornin dies one day, leaving behind two sons and three daughters. His sons, Penn and Avan, are in the clergy and government respectively, and his eldest daughter, Berend, is the matron in a wealthy family. The youngest daughters, Haner and Selendra, are unmarried, and are forced to separate when their patriarch dies. Much of the story is about Haner and Selendra being uprooted from their old home and settling down in their new environment: Haner with Berend and her husband, and Selendra with her parson brother Penn.

The real pivot of the story? They are all dragons, and dragons have a singular custom -- that of eating dragon flesh of the deceased, because that is the only way they can increase in power and sustenance. Walton gives them other dragon-like characteristics and rituals too, but at the heart of the story is the grim truth that dragon eats dragon to flourish. It is to Walton's credit that she makes dragon customs like these feel real but empathetic.

There are rules for dragonflesh repast, however -- it should be consented to by the deceased (or the deceased's rightful guardian), and otherwise, only dragons too weak to survive long may be killed. when Bon dies, these rules are broken by his own greedy son-in-law Daverak, and that is the shocking incident which sets the ominous undertone in the book.

Written in a style similar to that of Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen, Walton's characterizations are simple but her observations about people (even if they are in anthropomorphic forms) are so very succinct and on-the-mark that it was impossible not to smile with glee as the story unfolded. There is an underlying droll humor too, throughout the pages, which made the book a cozy pleasure. Satire and comedy of manners were what Trollope and Austen did best, and Walton's Tooth and Claw follows in the same footsteps.

There are so many threads running through, about radical religious thinking, women's independence, whether might makes right always, rigidities of family hierarchies, the subtleties of indirect bigotry, the never-changing pomposity of Court procedures. Walton manages all these threads deftly, and even though she does not narrate a revolutionary awakening in dragon society, she does bring about small changes in the lives of the Agornin family -- and really, those little changes are more than enough for any reader.

Tooth and Claw won the 2004 World Fantasy Award for best novel.
Rating: 9/10. Highly recommended.
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Book Review: Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull

This week, I read Freedom and Necessity by Emma Bull and Steven Brust, which had come highly recommended by fans of speculative fiction. From the book blurb:
"It is 1849. Across Europe, the high tide of revolution has crested, leaving recrimination and betrayal in its wake. From the high councils of Prussia to the corridors of Parliament, the powers-that-be breathe sighs of relief. But the powers-that-be are hardly unified among themselves. Far from it . . .

On the south coast of England, London man-about-town James Cobham comes to himself in a country inn, with no idea how he got there. Corresponding with his brother, he discovers he has been presumed drowned in a boating accident. Together they decide that he should stay put for the moment, while they investigate what may have transpired. For James Cobham is a wanted man―wanted by conspiring factions of the government and the Chartists alike, and also targeted by a magical conspiracy inside his own family ...."
In Victorian England, James Cobham dies in mysterious circumstances, but then resurfaces to life in equally mysterious circumstances. Cobham then goes into hiding, and we discover a sinister trail of disappearances as the Chartist Movement in London tries to usurp power for the workers from the rich and the titled. Cobham sets out to discover who is trying to kill him (not so much of a mystery) and how they did so (the bigger mystery), even as a class struggle rages across England.

There is no doubt that the writing is extremely well-researched, with a flair for historical writing similar to Wilkie Collins and Doyle and so forth. Both Emma Bull and Steven Brust are veterans of speculative fiction and they both bring their flair to Freedom and Necessity as well.

However, the book is told in the epistolary fashion, with which I have very little patience. I like to read about action while it is happening, not reading the truncated version afterwards. IMHO, the letters in this book are slow and meandering, and limited to Cobham and his three relatives, including his love interest, Susan Voight.

The letters do contain many philosophical discussions about Hegel, Hume and Hobbes (and throw in Marx and Engels too), which is all very well. But these discussions crop up at odd moments, like when you just have been kidnapped or other such lurking peril. As a lawyer, I am familiar with these philosophers, but as a reader, I was frankly irked by with the ill-timed musings. If the authors used this device intentionally to keep the reader on tenterhooks, they failed in my case.

The book has been praised for its radical theme and settings (this is Industrial Revolution in England). And that part is true -- "freedom" is at the core of the book. Cobham's means of getting freedom is by removing class restrictions, and Susan's means of getting freedom for women is by saying no to the confines of marriage. From that angle, both characters succeed in their own ways.

But there also lies my biggest problem with the book -- that Cobham's goals of freedom are more fully realized than Susan's. It is not that the book is sexist, but there were so many cliches and stereotypes that I was quite disappointed with the whole premise of "freedom".

For instance, Cobham's role in the book revolves around thwarting and punishing his wrongdoers (all the while discussing bigwig philosophers). But Susan's role seems to be limited to finding out more about Cobham, a.k.a., the man with the beautiful mind. Susan's life doesn't burn with revolutionary ideas as such, rather it revolves around Cobham's revolutionary ones. What does Susan passionately want for herself, we will never know.

Susan also, of course, has "French" roots, which may be why she is so very liberal and wears trousers and has short hair in Victorian society (*rolls eyes*). But for all her talk of independence,
[Spoiler (click to open)]
she is pregnant out of wedlock by the time the whole book ends. Was it really necessary to add this aspect to the plot?
I suppose in the mid-1800s, this is to be expected, but were there no other ways of noting this reality, especially in a book about historical fantasy fiction? I felt that having a Susan in the book was merely an agency for populating the book with more letters, and not for creating a protagonist in her own right.

That being said, the background of magical conspiracy and intrigue, and of course, the flounces of period literature make the book worth its while. If you like epistolary novels, you should certainly give this one a try.

Rating: 6.5/10. Entertaining.
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Brightness, Travel

2016 Top Ten Round-Up

2016 saw me reaching out for many books and abandoning them midway. Even TV shows and movies were fewer in number than I had hoped. However, out of the few media and moments that I did explore, here are the most memorable ones for me:

#1# And Then There Were None (BBC 2015). I find this to be Christie's darkest story (well, maybe besides Curtain and Five Little Pigs). A group of eight strangers with sordid pasts are invited for dinner, and slowly, each one of them is murdered. Suspenseful, with a great star cast. And may I add here, that I finally understand why Aidan Turner has such a big fan following in Poldark? Watch him in this fan-made trailer.

#2# Veronica Mars. Who knew a 2003 TV show about a teenage girl detective could be so cracktastic? The first season was a series of sleuthing assignments for Veronica (and her PI father), overlayed by a grimmer, more urgent plotline of the mysterious death of Veronica's best friend last year. All the characters are well-drawn, with a lot of backstory and depth, and the relationships are well-knit too. But best of all is Veronica's snark. *smirk*

#3# The Visit. Got this 1956 play by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt from the local library. I wish I'd found this book when I'd been searching for plays to direct at my school talent show. Claire Zachanassian, now a multi-millionnaire widow, re-visits her dying hometown, and is willing to offer financial help. Except she has a condition -- they must kill the man next in line for Mayor. A cynical, comical and dramatic take on human hypocrisy and how greed can be and often is paraded as righteous piety.

#4# Star Wars: Rogue One. Aka, Episode 3.5. While Episode VII had left me grinning like a loon, this one left me feeling nostalgic. The plot was predictable, the speeches were not so inspiring. Special effects were great as always, though also sorta I've-seen-this-before. But if you have been a Star Wars fan all your life, you simply CANNOT miss this movie.

#5# Oh Drakon, or He's a Dragon. The title is not very inspired, but the movie is a feast for the eyes. Based on a Russian folk tale about a dragon who demands a human bride sacrifice to leave the villagers in peace, the story sucks you in. The soundtrack is as beguiling as the cinematography. If you like folk tales retold, then this one's a must watch. You can find the English-subtitled trailer here.

#6# Arrival. Any "First Contact" movie out there, I gotta see it. In this one, a linguist is called on to interpret the language of the alien Hexapods who land on earth in their eerie egg-shaped spaceships, with incredible consequences. The first part of the movie is especially tense and nerve-wracking, and Amy Adams' look of absolute awe mixed with fear makes for superb acting. Though I did find loopholes in the ending and some hidden geographical biases, Arrival was possibly the most thought-provoking movie I saw all year.

#7# Dark Universe. I saw this short documentary-cum-movie at the Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History on New Year's Eve. And before you think only kids go there, let me tell you -- NOT. It was an amazing hair-raising experience, with the whole archdome of the theatre a giant 3D screen immersing you right amidst the stars. Here's a brief clip:

#8# Thank You. Well, the year's best-of-list is never complete without a Korean drama strewn in. Thank You is a 2007 production, starring my favorite actors Jang Hyuk and Gong Hyo-Jin. The story centers around a single mother raising an HIV-positive child and a grandfather suffering from Alzheimer's in a backwaters village, with no respite in sight. Then one day, a jaded, almost maniacal, doctor walks in, and from there onwards, the show is a story about redemption, new beginnings and the joys of simple living. Each of the 16 episodes was so well-crafted, my heart ached afterwards. Thank you 2016, for letting me watch this show. You can watch it on Youtube.

#9. A Year Full of Music. I discovered a lot of great music this year, thanks to Apple Music, including: the creepy Dollhouse by Melanie Martinez, the haunting Can You Hear Me? by Fleurie, the strangely restful Ethiopian prayer music, and the epic instrumental music by Thomas Bergersen (great for writing, by the way). I also attended the Norah Jones musical concert, which was three hours of therapy for the soul.

#10# First Snow. So I have never seen real snow before. Or held it in the palm of my hand. Brr. You know about all those first snow theories? That if you make a wish on first snow, it turns true? Well, here's hoping it comes true for me this 2017.
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Villainy 101

What are some traits of the villains we all love to hate? Here’s my count-down of some of the worst villains I have encountered in my reading life, and what makes them tick:

#1/ They were born with the silver tongue.
Well, first there was the serpent in Eden. Then there were the witches in Macbeth, who led a brave man into a mess of his own-making with their self-fulfilling prophecies, and the priest Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Iago in Othello who make the heroes turn against their own beloveds. Oh, these wily abettors, with all their slippery lies and their crafty gift of the gab. Let’s also not forget those serial killers in literature and on screen, who keep us on the edge of our seats as they persuade many a victim into their parlour and there onwards to an early grave.

#2/ Their motives remain hidden, and therefore, more ominous.
Sunday is not the name of a week. In The Man Who Was Thursday, Sunday is the head of a shady organization bent upon anarchy. Thursday is the under-cover police officer who has a mad-paced race to stop Sunday’s nefarious plans and prove that Order will always wins over Chaos. Except… Sunday turns out to be something else.

#3/ They are omniscient.
Like Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis, these villains are everywhere. They have spies in the elitist and most secretive organizations, in the underground, in the police, in the government. There is nothing hidden from them, and this only makes them more difficult to defeat. Imagine what a master criminal mind they make, and if only they could have put it to good use.

#4/ They are deluded they are doing Good.
There is rarely a villain worse than the one who thinks his evil actions are intended for the Good of the people, or even their loved ones. Kilgrave from Jessica Jones is one such character; right till the end, he thinks his coercive, intrusive mind-raping actions are justified because Jessica is his true love and all’s well that ends well. And if you've read Jane Eyre, you will remember St. John Rivers, the missionary who was so very noble, but his sternness, sense of importance and inhuman emotional control made him completely unbearable.

#5/ They could have been redeemed, and sometimes, you want to pity them.
The villain from the Korean drama, Liar Game, is twisted. He is conducting a psychological experiment on reality TV, and as the manipulative, must-be-insane evil genius TV host, this villain is truly matchless. When his real motives come to light in the climax of the drama, you are disturbed, you grieve for the reasons he turned out this way, you pity him. You wonder if he can redeem himself in the next season of the TV show.

#6/ They can be unpredictable, and two-faced. Literally.
Sometimes, they have to make a choice between a an evil act and a good one. They’ll keep you on your toes, wondering what they’ll do next or whose side they’ll take. Loki is one example that comes to mind. Another’s Coyote, in Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thompson series. And then there is that whole dissociative identity/ multiple personality disorder shenanigans, with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and Norman Bates from Psycho leading the parade. Which choice will finally be made? Which personality will finally take over?

#7/ Sometimes, their presence speaks louder than words.
They may not have raised a finger at the hero, yet their mere presence in the room is like a dark cloud. You are more terrified of their silence and their stillness than any action that any other character may decide to take. You know who I’m speaking about. That Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities, you just know her knitting is weaving trouble all around. Or the Raven King from Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, who has disappeared from England and taken all the magic out with him, yet his legend persists, and it’s downright hair-raising.

#8/ They really just want to survive.
They’ll say, I only wanted to survive. And in a weird sad way, it sort of makes sense. Ask Sher Khan from The Jungle Book, who wants food, and who better than a hate human cub. Or even Count Vlad, Dracula, who is stuck permanently in this human realm and needs blood to live on – so obviously, he needs to crawl down walls and bite human women (why only human women?) to death.

#9/ They crave world domination.
This one’s a no-brainer. We all know Voldemort. We have seen his dark but fascinating evolution from Tom Marvolo Riddle to the Dark Lord in the Harry Potter series. From what I have read about J.K. Rowling, Voldemort’s mission for pureblood supremacy is mirrored against Hitler’s agenda of genocide. And then there’s Sauron from Lord of the Rings, and Darth Vader. If ever there was ambition, these villains have it.

#10/ They thrive on torture.
Er, have you seen Game of Thrones? Have you seen Ramsay Bolton torturing Reek? Or Nils Bjurman in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? Phew. Enough said.

So, which villains have been most loathsome for you?
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Poetry Friday - A Few Clerihews

Clerihew: a type of light, humorous biographical four-line poem (i.e. a "quartrain"), in rhyming style AABB. The clerihew was named after its inventor, Edmund Clerihew Bentley (also, one of G.K. Chesterton's close friends). The first line of the clerihew is the name of the poem's subject, usually a famous person "put in an absurd light".

A few funniest samples here:

After dinner, Erasmus
Told Colet not to be “blas’mous”
Which Colet, with some heat
Requested him to repeat.
The people of Spain think Cervantes
Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes:
An opinion resented most bitterly
By the people of Italy.
Sir Humphrey Davy
Detested gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, "I'm going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I'm designing St. Paul's."
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Randoms, Books, Lost

Top 10 Tuesday: Top Ten Gateway Books

Top Ten Gateway Books is a meme at Top 10 Tuesday that's recently become quite popular. Here's a round-up of the ten books that introduced me to new genres and new ways of thinking:

1. Gateway into Historical FictionLes Meserables by Victor Hugo -- I loved my old English teacher, and she once read to us, The Bishop's Candlesticks, in school. Eager to know whether Jean Valjean reformed himself and stopped stealing after all, I raced to buy an abridged version of Les Meserables. I devoured the book in one night, wailed buckets into my pillow and bunked school the next day -- a first for me.

2. Gateway to Literary FictionAtlas Shrugged by  Ayn Rand was possibly my first serious contemporary read. Prior to this, my life had been Harry Potter and Jane Austen. Suddenly, capitalism was thrust at me in the form of a fat book about a legendary guy gathering all the heroes of the world and leaving the loser moochers behind in the dust. I stole the book from my elder brother's bookshelf and never even understood the half of it. But I still loved Dagny Taggart and wanted to be like her. Who is John Galt? My favourite question ever.

3. Gateway into Non-FictionRusska: The Novel of Russia by Edward Rutherfurd -- I grew up on Russian/ Ukrainian folk tales (and if you have never tried them, you really, really must). So my enchantment with Russia, its history and architecture, and yes, even its politics, has been a long standing one. Then one day, I found Russka in a book store; someone had placed it in the wrong side of the shelves. Non-fiction suddenly became very intriguing.

4. Gateway into Detective FictionThe Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie is by no means my favorite but it's memorable because it started me off on a binge-read of Christie's books. The man in question was cynical, brooding, glowering (at our chirpy heroine), and possibly a murderer. Favorite qualities in a hero for a teenage girl, don't you know. The villain was so likeable, he put the said hero to shame. For someone whose idea of mystery books and detective fiction had so far been Nancy Drew, Hitchcok's Three Investigators and Enid Blyton's Five Find-Outers, Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit was a gateway to a whole new world out there.

5. Gateway into Science FictionCordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold -- I have reviewed this book before. Science fiction was a thing of worry, till someone rightly pointed out you don't have to a nuclear physicist to understand science. Well, Cordelia's Honor is less about science and more about integrity, but it still was a wonderful entry into the world of space opera. It also gave me one of my favorite authors. For any newbie, my recommended primer would always be Cordelia's Honor.

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Randoms, Books, Lost

2015 Top Ten Round-Up

If I were to sum up 2015, it would be less reading, more watching. I took several shortcuts this year, opting to watch the movie/ TV versions instead of reading the book. But some of those shortcuts proved to be quite wonderful. With that as a caveat, here’s a summary round-up -- in no particular order -- of all the most memorable events of 2015 for me:

1. Jessica Jones
Binge-watching Jessica Jones was no hard feat; it was the most automatic “play next” in the world (link to trailer). I had read so many reviews about this show: the “neo-Noir” tones, a Marvel Comics hero who is grappling with a painful past slash disability, great relationships (especially female friendships), 3D characterizations, awesome acting and kickass women. All true, boyo. (Note: If you like Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, you will find Jessica Jones remarkably similar, as the self-deprecating, smart PI with supernatural powers.) Krysten Ritter acting as Jessica and David Tennant acting as the evil Kilgrave were jawdroppingly good. Kilgrave, Kilgrave, it is a mark to Melissa Rosenberg’s screenwriting that even for a villain like that, you hope for reformation.

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Mystery Marathon: Year of the Whodunit

I went on a mystery marathon this 2015, pulling out old mystery books which had been made into movies or TV shows. So, in a way I cheated, but I blame it all on The Silkworm, which was my first mystery book in ages and which made me want to read again about the human propensity for murder and mayhem. Here’s the brief run-up:

Every Secret Thing (2014)
This mystery movie is more of a psychological intrigue, and is based on Laura Lippmann’s book of the same name. Two school girls were convicted of killing an African American baby girl, now they have been released. But the same murder happens again – did they or did they not do the second murder as well? Actually, were they guilty of the first murder, in the first place? Everyone’s hiding a secret here, and you don’t know whether you should applaud or berate them for keeping such secrets. Detective Nancy Porter comes across as a mild-mannered and soft-spoken investigator, an unusual characterization for a crime detective. Not sure if its true to the book though. All-in-all, a disturbing but brilliant plot. Rating: 9.5/10

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