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Archive for July, 2011

I discovered ‘The Gates’ by John Connolly during a bookstore browsing session last week. I wanted to put it back on the shelf, but the description of the book on the back cover and the first page of the book grabbed my attention and refused to let me go. I finished reading it recently (I like the fact that in recent times, I am reading books as soon as I get them J). Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

Samuel Johnson is a young boy who lives in the village of Biddlecombe with his single mother and his dog called James Boswell. When Samuel Johnson tries to go ‘trick-and-treating’ in advance, one day before Halloween, to the place of his neighbour, the Abernathys, he discovers that the Abernathys and their friends the Renfields are in the middle of strange ritual in their basement. At the same time something strange happens in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which is running in Switzerland. Stranger things happen at the Abernathys’ basement, where there is an explosion and some strange creatures come out of a bluish flame in the middle of the basement and take over the bodies of the Abernathys and the Renfields. Johnson later learns that the Abernathys and their friends were trying to perform an ancient ritual to open the gates of Hell. Johnson speeds off to home after this incident, but not before the creature which inhabits Mrs.Abernathy has seen him. She makes him realize that in subsequent meetings and Johnson knows that he is in danger. Meanwhile by accident, the demon Nurd, who has been banished to a remote part of Hell by the Devil himself, is mysteriously transported across dimensions and ends up in the real world and meets Samuel. For a first encounter between a demon and a human boy, the meeting goes off quite well and Nurd seems to enjoy the little pleasures of the world and the company of humans, while Johnson finds that demons could be pleasant and fun too. Soon Johnson enlists the help of his friends Maria and Tom to fight the creatures in the Abernathys’ basement. Strange things start happening in the village of Biddlecombe and strange creatures start coming out of the house of the Abernathys and create havoc. How Johnson and his friends and his dog Boswell and how the scientists in CERN tackle this and the role the demon Nurd plays in this and whether the devil is actually able to open the gates of Hell and get to earth form the rest of the story.

 

I loved ‘The Gates’. It has a combination of fantasy, science, mythology and is fast-paced. There is wonderful humour in every page and in the first half of the story, there are footnotes in atleast every alternate page. Sometimes the footnotes add explanations to some aspect of the story or to the science, literature, language part of it. At other times the footnotes are humorous entries which make one laugh out loud. I liked most of the main characters – Samuel Johnson, his dog James Boswell, his friends Maria and Tom – but my most favourite character in the story was the demon Nurd. Nurd was cool, liked having fun, enjoyed new experiences like having wine gums or driving fast cars and generally added a spark to the story. He also played an important role in the climax. This book reminded me of ‘The Amulet of Samarkhand’ by Jonathan Stroud, because of its humour and because one of its main characters is a demon (‘The Amulet of Samarkhand’ had a djinn as one of the main characters).

 

The subtitle of the book read ‘Samuel Johnson Versus The Devil : Round 1’. I heard that the second book of the series is also out. I cannot wait to read that next and find out what happens in Round 2. Having read a few Irish authors – Eoin Colfer, Erskine Childers, John Banville and little bits of Seamus Heaney, Cecilia Ahern, John McGahern – and now John Connolly, I have to say that Irish literature rocks! I also read in Wikipedia that John Connolly also writes crime novels. If ‘The Gates’ is anything to go by, I think his crime novels would be fun too. I want to explore them sometime. 

 

Excerpts

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

This is one of my favourite footnotes.

 

The Divine Comedy is not funny, but it’s not supposed to be, despite its name. In Dante’s time, a comedy meant a work that reflected a belief in an ordered universe. Also, serious books were written in Latin, and Dante wrote in a new language : Italian. Some of Shakespeare’s comedies are funny, though, but not if you’re being forced to study them in school. In school, everything Shakespeare wrote starts to seem like a tragedy, even the ones that aren’t tragedies, which is a bit unfortunate, but that’s just because of the way they’re taught. Stick with them. In later life, people will be impressed that you can quote Shakespeare, and you will sound very intelligent. It’s harder to quote trigonometry, or quadratic equations, and not half as romantic.

 

Here are some of my favourite passages on Nurd, the demon.

 

      Samuel had a good instinct for people. He could tell a good person from a bad one, often before the person in question had even spoken. Although his experience of demons was rather more limited, something told him that if Nurd wasn’t exactly good – and, being a demon, it was hardly part of the job description (‘Wanted : demon. Must be good…’) – he was not entirely bad either. Like most ordinary people, he was just himself.

 

      ‘You’re not going to hurt me, are you?’ asked Samuel.

      Nurd looked shocked. ‘Why should I do that?’

      ‘Because you’re a demon.’

      ‘Just because I’m a demon doesn’t mean that I’m bad,’ said Nurd. A piece of wine gum had stuck to his teeth, and he worked at it with a long fingernail. ‘I didn’t ask to be a demon. It just happened that way. I opened my eyes one day, and there I was. Nurd. Ugly bloke. No friends. Even other demons don’t care much for my company.’

      ‘Why? You seem all right to me.’

      ‘I suppose that’s it, really. I’ve never been very demonic. I don’t want to torture, or wreak havoc. I don’t want to be frightening, or terrible. I just want to potter along, minding my own business. But they told me I had to do something destructive or I’d be in trouble, so I tried to find a role that wouldn’t attract too much attention, or cause a lot of bother to people, but all those jobs were taken…’

 

      And Nurd, who had never had a mother and father, and who had never loved or been loved, marvelled at the ways in which feeling so wonderful could also leave one open to so much pain. In a strange way, he envied Samuel even that. He wanted to care about someone so much that it could hurt.

 

Have you read ‘The Gates’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Forbidden’ by Tabitha Suzuma through the review of fellow blogger Kelly from Kelly Vision. (Thanks Kelly J) The premise behind the story pulled me in and I couldn’t resist the book. I got the book last week and though I was busy during the beginning of the week, I got into the book towards the end of the week and finished it in a couple of days. This is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

Lochan and Maya are in their late teens and are the eldest children in their family. They have two brothers and a sister. Their parents are divorced. Their dad has gone to live in Australia with his new wife. Their mom is an alcoholic, is a waitress in a restaurant and is seeing the owner of the restaurant. She doesn’t have time for her children and is not at home most of time, after work. This puts a lot of pressure on Lochan and Maya, as, though they are children, they have to act like adults and take care of their younger siblings and also cover up for their mother. As otherwise, social services might step in and that would be the end of them as a family unit. While doing this, the unexpected happens. Lochan and Maya fall in love with each other. They know it is incestuous and forbidden, and they try to ignore it and try to find other partners, but it doesn’t work. Then they learn to live with their feelings for each other, always worried about what will happen to them and their family if their secret comes out. The story lurches from crisis to crisis with tender moments in between. One worries about the fates of Lochan and Maya and wants them to be happy in the end. But one fears that things may not go that way. And that turns out to be true. The ending is tragic and heartbreaking. It made me cry. In the final few pages, I could feel the author pause, while she thought what to do – whether she should deal a double blow by inflicting another tragedy on the reader or whether she should take the opposite route and have a life-affirming ending. By that time I knew that things were not going to be happy, either way. A double blow was going to make me cry more, though it probably wouldn’t feel as hard as the first one. A life-affirming ending would be something which would continue the status quo of the story in a more difficult situation. I felt the author move her pen (or her hands over the keyboard) after the pause and choose the second one. It was disappointing in a way – because what it meant was that the nice characters in the story whom we cared for and rooted for from the beginning were going to continue to suffer and struggle in silence, while the not-so-nice characters were going to continue to be irresponsible and have fun. It felt so unfair. But I wouldn’t blame the author for that. When the choice is between the devil and the deep sea or a rock and a hard place, it is difficult to pick one.

 

I read a little bit about Tabitha Suzuma, after I read the book. I was surprised that such a talented author like her, who didn’t shy away from controversial topics, was not so well-known before. I liked the things I read about her. I liked the fact that she was British – the YA landscape has so few British writers (except for the YA fantasy landscape which has more than a few) that it felt like a whiff of fresh air. It was also interesting to know that Suzuma also has a Japanese background as her father was Japanese. Which is also unique, I think, because there are no Japanese origin YA writers that I know of. I also read that Suzuma has four siblings and she is the eldest and her family was beset with problems when she was growing up and all the children went through a depressive phase during their childhood. Her experience comes out in the book as parts of it look like they might have been based on actual experience – they look so genuine and real. Lochan, though he plays the role of a parent at home, is painfully shy at school and the way Suzuma depicts it is sensitive and realistic. I could identify with some of that, as I too was a painfully shy guy at school.

 

This is the second heartbreaking love story that I have read in the last few months. I don’t know what it is between me and heartbreakers, but we seem to be having a love affair.

 

‘Forbidden’ is an unconventional love story. It explores the limits of what is possible and what is not, in human relationships, and asks questions on why we believe what we believe and how social rules have evolved and what happens when we try breaking them or crossing a line in the sand. ‘Forbidden’ is also the story of a family which tries to stay together through good times and bad and the compromises it has to make and the battles it has to fight to have the simple life, the pleasures and the comforts that many of us take for granted.

 

If you like a good love story, are not worried about taboo topics, and don’t mind a heartbreaking ending, you will love this book. As for myself, I want to explore more of Suzuma’s books.

 

Before ending, I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

 

I wonder what it would be like to be shut up in this airless glass box, slowly baked for two long months by the relentless sun, able to see the outdoors – the wind shaking the green trees right there in front of you – hurling yourself again and again at the invisible wall that seals you off from everything that is real and alive and necessary, until eventually you succumb: scorched, exhausted, overwhelmed by the impossibility of the task. At what point does a fly give up trying to escape through a closed window – do its survival instincts keep it going until it is physically capable of no more, or does it eventually learn after one crash too many that there is no way out? At what point do you decide that enough is enough?

 

Have you read ‘Forbidden’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Marie Corelli when I was a student, and when I used to spend a lot of time in the library. The government library that was there in the town I lived in, didn’t have books by ‘hot’ authors, but had mostly classics and books by British writers who wrote in the late 19th / early 20th century. At that time I thought quite poorly of the library’s collection, but I am older and wiser now and I realize that the books the library had were rare classics which are impossible to get today. I discovered A.J.Cronin, Freeman Wills Crofts and Sapper (Herman Cyril McNeile) because of this library and I am thankful for that. I also discovered contemporary writers like Sally Beauman (author of ‘Destiny’) and Christopher New because of this library. Christopher New’s ‘Shanghai’ is one of the best novels on China that I have ever read. It is set in China from around 1900 to 1949. If you like novels set in China, you will love this.

 

One of the writers whose books I saw in the library, while browsing the shelves those days, was Marie Corelli. Her books were typically thick hardbacks and looked very different from other classics. One of the things I noticed about her books was that the first page was written so well that it grabbed the reader’s attention. For example, one of Corelli’s books called ‘Vendetta’ starts with this sentence – “I, who write this, am a dead man”. Who can resist this start? Another Corelli book called ‘Thelma’ starts with this sentence – “Midnight, – without darkness, without stars!” The reader can’t wait to find out what is this place which is not dark at midnight and which doesn’t have stars! The book that is reviewed here, ‘The Sorrows of Satan’, starts with this sentence – “Do you know what it is to be poor?” I never borrowed one of Corelli’s books, but I browsed through them and read the first page, and put them back on the shelf. I always thought that I will come back and read a Marie Corelli book later. But that day never came and I grew up and moved cities and Marie Corelli went out of sight and out of mind, while her books disappeared from the bookshelves of libraries and bookstores. Later, while reading one of R.K.Narayan’s nonfiction books, I read his thoughts on Corelli. I found that quite interesting, because I didn’t remember any writer mentioning Corelli before, and it was like an old friend knocking at the doors of my memory and making me remember her. Sometime back, I spent an evening at the bookstore browsing books, when I saw a Marie Corelli book! Then I saw another! Then another! I was so delighted at making this acquaintance with her again! I had thought that I will never see a Corelli book again and here there were three staring at my face, like long-lost friends! I grabbed the three of them and got home and put them in a special place on my bookshelf. There they waited for the right time to be taken out and read. The stars aligned and the right time arrived last week. I took down ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ and read it in one breath. Here is what I think about it.

 

 

What I think

 

‘The Sorrows of Satan’ is about a poor writer called Geoffrey Tempest who finds it extremely difficult to make ends meet as his articles for papers and magazines are rejected while his novel is rejected by publisher after publisher, though it seems to have some merit. Tempest arrives home one day in the evening, trying to dodge his landlady because his rent is overdue, and sits on a chair tiredly when he notices that three letters have arrived for him. One of them contains a draft for fifty pounds from his friend in Australia, John Carrington, to whom Tempest had asked for a loan. Tempest is thrilled and thanks his friend from his heart. His friend has also written Tempest that a benefactor and friend of his will visit Tempest soon, present his credentials and help him in getting his book published. The second letter is from a firm of solicitors, which states that one of Tempest’s distant relatives has left a fortune of five million pounds for Tempest in his will and asks Tempest whether he could come and collect it. Tempest is thrilled beyond measure, because from a pauper who can’t afford to pay his rent he has become a multi-millionaire in a matter of minutes. The third letter is from Prince Lucio Rimânez, which states that Prince Rimânez is a friend of Tempest’s friend John Carrington and he is in town and he would like to meet Tempest and be of service to him. Tempest doesn’t know what to do, because though he was delighted five minutes back when he read his friend’s letter, now he is not sure whether he needs his friend’s benefactor’s help, because of his newly acquired wealth. But before Tempest can decide on what to do, there is a knock at the door, a handsome, elegant gentleman enters and introduces himself as Prince Rimânez and before Tempest knows he has become close friends with this mysterious gentleman, who seems to know the who’s who of London and England. Tempest’s life changes beyond his wildest dreams because of his newly acquired wealth and influence and he seems to get all that a man can ever desire – a big house, a beautiful wife, friends among royal circles, lots of money in the bank, a life filled with parties. He even is able to publish his book, because he pays for it himself. It is even critically acclaimed. But is that all that he wants? Does the new life make Tempest really happy? Is a hedonistic life, all that there is? After all how much can one eat, drink and make merry? Or how many parties can one host or attend and how long can one be famous? And what about true love? Does it really exist or is it all a sham? And who is this mysterious gentleman, Prince Rimânez, who uses his influence and helps Tempest without expecting anything in return? Isn’t it too good to be true? To find the answers to these questions, you should read the book 🙂

 

‘The Sorrows of Satan’ could be called a Faustian fable. It asks interesting questions on human life and wants and desires and makes the reader think on what is the good life and what is the best way to get it. It also throws interesting light on the contrasts between rich and poor, fame and anonymity, truth and imagination, science and faith and attempts to show that what is visible on the surface is not all there is. When we read it with a 21st century sensibility, we might find some of the passages preachy, some of the passages cynical, the ending a bit ‘Christian’ and one of the characters even resembling Mary Sue. But the book touched me deeply, talked to me at many levels and provided me many revealing insights. It also showed how the world hasn’t changed much across the centuries and how no rules applied to some people while all rules applied to others. I loved the characters of Prince Lucio Rimânez, Lady Sibyl Elton who is Geoffrey Tempest’s wife and Mavis Clare, a fellow writer, of whom Tempest is jealous, and who he later admires. I especially liked Sibyl, who in some ways might be called the ‘bad’ lady in the novel, but who is really a strong and complex and courageous character and who speaks some insightful passages. I also liked the way the narrator, Geoffrey Tempest’s life and thinking and character evolves across the story.

 

I searched for information in Wikipedia about Marie Corelli and found some interesting nuggets. Here is what Wikipedia said – “She emerged as a literary superstar from the publication of her first novel in 1886 until World War I when her popularity began to fade. Corelli’s novels sold more copies than the combined sales of popular contemporaries, including Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Rudyard Kipling, despite the fact that critics often derided her work as “the favorite of the common multitude.”” Isn’t that interesting? To sell more copies than the combined sales of popular contemporaries, must have been really something! Marie Corelli seems to have been a literary superstar of her age! Marie Corelli also seems to have lived an unconventional life, because she never married and seems to have had an intimate relationship with her longtime companion Bertha Vyver.  It is sad that Corelli is not so well known today. It is a shame that bestselling authors of a particular era are ignored by later generations because of the opinion of critics and their works are lost after a point of time. I hope more new readers discover Marie Corelli and her works.  

 

Excerpts

 

I loved many passages from the book. Here is one of my favourites.

 

The music swelled into passionate cadence, – melodies crossed and re-crossed each other like rays of light glittering among green leaves, – voices of birds and streams and tossing waterfalls chimed in with songs of love and playful merriment; – anon came wilder strains of grief and angry clamour; cries of despair were heard echoing through the thunderous noise of some relentless storm, – farewells everlastingly shrieked amid sobs of reluctant shuddering agony; – and then, as I listened, before my eyes a black mist gathered slowly, and I thought I saw great rocks bursting asunder into flame, and drifting islands in a sea of fire, – faces, wonderful, hideous, beautiful, peered at me out of a darkness denser than night, and in the midst of this there came a tune, complete in sweetness and suggestion, – a piercing sword-like tune that plunged into my very heart and rankled there, – my breath failed me, – my senses swam, – I felt that I must move, speak, cry out, and implore that this music, this horribly insidious music should cease ere I swooned with the voluptuous poison of it, – when, with a full chord of splendid harmony that rolled out upon the air like a breaking wave, the intoxicating sounds ebbed away into silence. No one spoke, – our hearts were yet beating too wildly with the pulsations roused by that wondrous lyric storm.

 

I am going to read the other Corelli books I have – ‘Vendetta’ and ‘Thelma’ –  soon. I also discovered that Oxford University Press has published some of her books. I want to search for them and get them too.

 

Have you read ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ or other Marie Corelli books? What do you think about them?

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I discovered ‘Endymion Spring’ by Matthew Skelton a few years back in my favourite bookstore during one of my random browsing sessions. It was a YA book, was reasonably thick – around 440 pages – and the storyline was interesting and it was set in a library in Oxford. I love books set in Oxford and in libraries. I loved ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ by Iain Pears, which I think is an undiscovered classic waiting for readers to show it some affection and let it reveal its beauty, and ‘The Oxford Murders’ by Guillermo Martinez, which is a mathematical murder mystery set in Oxford. So, when I saw ‘Endymion Spring’ in the bookstore, I couldn’t resist it. However, as it often happens with me, after buying the book, I put it on the shelf and it remained there, forgotten for years. I moved cities and countries, and the book moved with me, but it always remained on the shelf, unread and unloved. After reading John Banville’s ‘The Infinities’ I thought I will read a traditional story which had a beginning, a middle and an end, and I browsed my bookshelf. ‘Endymion Spring’ leapt at me and I decided that I should give it a try. I finished reading it yesterday. This is what I think about it.

 

 

What I think

 

A boy (Blake Winters) is browsing books in St.Jerome’s College Library in Oxford. He has come there with his mother and younger sister (Duck). His mother (Juliet Winters) is an American academic who has come to Oxford to do research and she has brought her children with her. The mother is having problems with her husband and they are on the verge of separation. When the boy is browsing books on the shelf, suddenly one of the books bites him! The boy picks that book and finds that the name ‘Endymion Spring’ is printed on the leather cover. Inside, the book is made of beautiful paper, but there are no words in it – the book is blank. Then suddenly, while the boy is looking at the blank pages, words start appearing on the page, giving a cryptic message. The boy later discovers that this is a book which finds its readers and puts itself into their hands. It is also supposed to lead one to ‘The Lost Book’ which contains all wisdom that there ever was and which will lead the owner to limitless power and wealth. And when such a thing is there, there are of course, villains who covet it and who will do anything to get their hands on it. The story also shifts after a while to 1453 to Mainz in Germany, where Gutenberg is trying to build a new printing press and has a printer’s devil (assistant) called Endymion Spring to assist him. One winter night a man called Johann Fust and his assistant Peter come visiting to Gutenberg’s place dragging a mysterious chest. The connection between the mysterious book in the library and the 15th century Endymion Spring and the mysterious chest, how the mysterious book came about and what is its connection to dragons, the identity of the villains and whether our hero outwits them form the rest of the story.

 

I enjoyed reading ‘Endymion Spring’ because it was set in Oxford among books and libraries. The edition I read also had big-sized font and so it was a pleasure to read. However after my honeymoon with the book got over, I found that the book had many issues with respect to plot construction, scene transition, story-telling techniques. Though the basic premise was quite interesting and the setting was wonderful, I found that at many places, the author resolved interesting events too easily. For example in one scene, the mysterious book suddenly disappears from the library and our hero Blake loses sleep over it, but then suddenly it appears again too easily without anything interesting happening – a person he knows comes and gives it to him. Come on, how easy can things get! In another place, Blake and his sister are trying to get into a library and the guard refuses to let them in. The reader waits to find out how the children are going to tackle this problem. Then someone comes behind them, says the children are there with her, and the children are let in. Come on! I felt that though the author had interesting ideas about the story and the way it should pan out, the execution was not perfect and his inexperience in storytelling showed. Maybe he needs to read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ or one of J.K.Rowling’s earlier Harry Potter books, from a writer’s perspective, and borrow some storytelling ideas from there.

 

So would I recommend ‘Endymion Spring’? I am not sure. It was a light, fast-paced read for me. I also liked the premise and the setting. But I also felt that the storytelling could have been better and more entertaining.

 

Have you read ‘Endymion Spring’? What do you think about it?

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