#MicroBlog Mondays: The first Gurgaon BYOB meet-up

The first Gurgaon BYOB (where the last B stands for books, not booze) meet-up took place yesterday at The Wishing Chair’s adorable Mad Teapot cafe. It was quite a turn out, and I was blown away by the variety of books and authors that people brought along to the discussion. Ranging from Murakami and Rushdie, to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, to an Indian author from Nagaland and an Iranian graphic novelist (yes, the Iranian graphic novelist), to a pilot and a sports writer – the discussion was engaging, illuminating, and passionate. The best thing was the absence of Chetan Bhagat and his ilk – although there was quite a heated debate on bad writing and there being no such thing as bad writing. It was a stimulating meet-up, and I came away with a couple of more books added to my TBR list. Here’s to more BYOB events in Gurgaon; may the tribe of readers grow!

Linking up with MicroBlog Mondays.

Book review: Seahorse by Janice Pariat

Seahorse is the story of Nem, a student of English literature at Delhi University. He drifts between classes, attends off-campus parties with free-flowing drinks and weed, and writes articles for the college magazine. Until one day he crosses paths with an art historian – an encounter that changes the course of his life, steering him into a world of pleasure and artistic discovery. And then one day, without warning, his mentor disappears.

In the years that follow, Nem settles down in South Delhi, earning a name for himself as an art critic. When he is awarded a fellowship to London, a cryptic note plunges him into a search for the art historian – a search that forces him to revisit the past and separate fact from fiction.

At this point, are you thinking that this novel may not have much to offer? That maybe you’ve read other books with similar story lines and aren’t sure if this has anything that will interest you? That you don’t want to waste more time or money looking for an Indian author you may fall in love with? What can I say to convince you?

Maybe I can tell you that this is a beautiful book…a story told with nuance and restraint. I could tell you that the characters are well-drawn, that the novel flows, nay glides, taking you along with it. I could tell you that the prose is luminous, that it will have you gasping at the sheer poetry on the page. But maybe I should just get out of the way and give you a few little excerpts from the book – something tickle your taste buds, so to speak.

On time:

Time is tricky.

You organize it into days. You break it down to a second, build it up to a century. A millennium. You shift, and stack, hoarding time into holidays and long weekends.

You peel away the calendar pages. Carry it around in smartphones and computers. It has shape. A design. Hands and digits. Glowing figured. And yet, it can’t be tamed.

On prophesies:

Isn’t that what we all search for? A sign, a purported signal of things to come, a pointer, a market of how life would unfurl before is.

Prophesies are the most scientific of supernatural phenomena, for they, like science, invest in a single outcome. The one truth.

And yet. And yet the universe is forever shifting, swelling with infinite possibilities and infinite outcomes. The power of prophesies lie in their self-fulfillment.

On cartography:

Stations, airports, and docks are sites of infinite departure, reservoirs of potential journeys, of possible events, the slippery and fleeting, worlds aborted and almost born.

I looked at the train tracks, joining and parting, reflecting light.

How difficult was it to comprehend this web of connections? This complicated intersection of lines.

At some point we feel compelled to account for every decision, every circumstance that places us in a particular moment.

We paint a surface and leave no free spaces. Horror vacui. The fear of the empty.

In the end, we are all cartographers – looking at a map of our lives. Marking out the uneven course of our existence, hoping there’ll be no disappearances, of ourselves and the people we love.

Have I convinced you yet?

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher, but the opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Guest post: KB Hoyles interviews Gateway Chronicle fans

This is a guest post by KB Hoyle, author of The Gateway Chronicles. Enjoy!

Because sometimes it’s more fun to hear from the readers than the author, I interviewed several of my teenage readers this week the day after the release of book 5, The Scroll. Blaine and Jennifer are ninth-grade girls, Keisha is an eleventh-grade girl, and Terra, who came into the room just as I was asking the last question, is in twelfth grade. With the exception of Keisha, these are all girls who have been readers of The Gateway Chronicles since I first self-published them, before I was signed by TWCS Publishing House. They are also current creative writing students of mine, so they really have the inside track!

K.B. Hoyle: When did you first start reading The Gateway Chronicles, and what was your first impression of the series?

Blaine: I wanna say I was in 7th grade? Or maybe the end of 6th. I was hooked!

Keisha: April of 2012. I was immediately obsessed with them! I could definitely relate to Darcy. I just love the books!

Jennifer: 6th grade. I saw them on our 6th grade reading list and had a preconceived notion that because you were a hard teacher, they wouldn’t be fun. Eventually, however, I gave in, and well, I couldn’t wait for the second one to come out, and I immediately told my friends about them. I wanted other people to read them so I could talk to them about them.

K.B. Hoyle: I am not a hard teacher! Pshaw.

Jennifer: Well, that’s what people told me!

Keisha and Blaine: lol!

K.B. Hoyle: Who is your favorite character in The Gateway Chronicles and why?

Blaine: Ummm… It’s a tie between Tellius and Yahto Veli. Yahto Veli just because he completely understands Darcy even when she doesn’t understand herself, and he’s completely willing to help her. Tellius because, well, he’s Tellius! Lol. Especially when he gets older, he’s really compassionate and caring, and a little too good to be true. He definitely raised my standards for guys!

Keisha: Uh… probably not Darcy because she and I are too much alike. Probably Tellius, Yahto Veli, and Perry. Perry’s a punk, but I like him a lot. He… I just have a crush on him in a weird way. I love Tellius, but I like who Perry is. Yahto Veli just cares about Darcy so much and he’s always there for her. And I cried at the end of The Oracle.

Jennifer: Tellius and Yahto Veli! Tellius because you can see a higher maturity level in him. Yahto Veli because you can see how he’s a father figure for Darcy. It’s also really cool how he’s two persons in one, and it’s really cool that both aspects love Darcy in different ways.

K.B. Hoyle: Okay, I think it’s pretty funny you all chose the same characters! My favorite character is also Tellius. He just has so much depth to him!

K.B. Hoyle: Which Gateway Chronicles book is your favorite and why (without giving spoilers!)

Blaine: Definitely The Scroll! There were several questions answered that I had been asking myself for a while, and then, um, you get to see, like with the prologue, that possibility had never entered my head! Then I read it, and it kind of made sense! I have another reason, but I can’t say it without giving away a spoiler! Lol.

Keisha: That’s a really hard question. Um. The Oracle was when the story really got GOOD, the stakes were raised, and I really liked that book. The White Thread had a lot of Perry fluff, which I liked. But I also really enjoyed The Enchanted for the romantic elements. But . . . probably The White Thread is a little higher than the others.

Jennifer: Ahhh . . . so far, of all the books I’ve completed reading, it’s The Enchanted. But I’m reading The Scroll right now, and I already like it a LOT. I liked in The Enchanted how mature the characters had become, and I really liked Darcy and Tellius in this book. I feel like I’ve gotten to grow up with these characters, and in The Enchanted, I really felt that I could relate to them! The Scroll so far is just really holding on to me with the suspense!

K.B. Hoyle: If you could say one thing to one character, what character would it be, and what would you say?

Blaine: I would say to Darcy, “Don’t blame yourself for everything! You tend to do that a lot, even when it’s not your fault.”

Keisha: I would say to Darcy, “Grow up and get a grip! Lol. Don’t fall into the same patterns. Realize that your friends are not against you, they want to help you. Your solutions are not always the best solutions.”

Jennifer: I would say to Darcy, “Trust more people! Don’t keep secrets.”

Blaine: She gets a LOT better about that in book 5!

Jennifer: Oh really? Good.

Terra (coming in to the conversation): I would say to Tellius, “Marry me now!”

A big thanks to these wonderful girls for humoring me with this interview! I have the greatest conversations with them about a variety of things, and I always enjoy getting to pick the brains of my readers, especially the ones who have been with me for so long. I know not all authors have such ready access to their readership, and I love that I personally know so many of mine. Now, even though I only interviewed girls, don’t be fooled! The Gateway Chronicles is read and enjoyed by boys of all ages, too. I hope you, too, enjoyed the interview!

Book review: Bellman & Black by Dianne Setterfield

Bellman & Black - Dianne SettOn a day like any other, young William Bellman boasts that he can hit a rook sitting on a branch a great distance away. His friends aren’t so sure that he can. Determined to prove them wrong, William loosens a stone from his catapult. It finds it mark. The young rook resting on the branch is killed instantly. Though William feels sad at the time, the event is soon forgotten.

The rook is comfortable pretty much anywhere. He goes where he pleases and, when he pleases, he comes back. Laughing…There are numerous collective nouns for rooks. In some parts people say a parliament of rooks.

Life goes on. William grows up into a fine young man. He leads a charmed life – he has a job he loves at his uncle’s mill, a wife and children he adores, his business is thriving and everything he touches turns to gold. But slowly, people around him start to die. And at each funeral he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling nonchalantly at him. Soon, death comes closer to home, claiming his wife and most of his children. Driven to despair, unhinged by grief, William is determined to end his own misery.

Now some great hand had peeled back the kind surface of that fairy-tale world and shown him the chasm beneath his feet.

He stumbles to his wife’s fresh grave, but there, waiting for him, is the mysterious stranger in black, who has a business proposition for him – a mysterious business called Bellman & Black.

As William goes about single-mindedly setting the business up from scratch, he can’t seem to remember the actual deal that he struck with Black. That’s a niggling worry that stays with him, one he cannot fully resolve because the mysterious Black doesn’t show himself again. Who is Black? What is the nature of the agreement they entered into? How much of the profit from this business should he set aside for Black? These are the questions that torment William – questions to which he has no answer until the very end.

Overall, I thought it was an interesting book, but it had its problems.

On the plus side, it is a very well-written book. Setterfield vividly brings Victorian England and the rural country side alive with her prose. Her attention to detail, especially in the running of the mill, is par excellence – though at times it does feel slightly academic and slows the story down somewhat.
The two main protagonists – William and the rook – are dealt with beautifully. William’s character isn’t likable, but he is admirable for his single-minded devotion to his work, his business acumen and his attention to each and every detail that goes into the running of his businesses. Setterfield also includes some interesting mythologies and observations about rooks, and offers readers a whole bunch of superstitions and stories about them through the ages.
Some of the prose is hauntingly beautiful, like this passage that deals with the loss of William’s mother:

His mother was dead: he had seen the body; yet this knowledge refused to find  a settled place in his mind. It came and went, surprised him every time he chanced upon it, and there were a million reasons not to believe it. His mother was dead, but look: here were her clothes and here her teacups, here her Sunday hat on the shelf over the coat hook. His mother was dead, but hark: the garden gate! Any moment now she would come through the door.

And, since this is, after all, a ghost story, there’s an air of menace and tension throughout the book. But it isn’t your regular ghost story, because there isn’t really a “haunting”, not in the traditional manner. The haunting is in the message, in the issues that Setterfield tackles – the meaning of life and death, of what’s important and what isn’t, of dealing with love, with loss, with work, with rest. There’s a lot to think about here.

But William resisted solitude as he resisted leisure. On the surface he was all ebullience and activity. Inside, hidden even from himself, he proceeded through life as though he had learned the ground beneath his feet was minced and at any step his footing might give way beneath him.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is that it drags, and it’s a tad boring. All that observation to detail in the day-to-day running of the mill tends to get quite academic; Black doesn’t properly enter the scene until the second part of the story; the key events described in the blurb – the bargain with Black and the creation of Bellman & Black – take place only in the second half of the book, and even then, there isn’t much action. Setterfiled does build up some promising scenarios, when she could have taken the story forward dramatically, but they all just fizzle off.

This is a novel that would probably have done much better as a short story or novella. Overall, it isn’t a terrible book – indeed, it has its moments – but I wouldn’t recommend it to lovers of ghost stories or gothic fiction. Fans of literary fiction could give it a try.

Book review: Two Brothers by Ben Elton

Two Brothers by Ben EltonBerlin, 1920. Two babies are born. Two brothers. United and indivisible, sharing everything. Twins in all but blood. As Germany marches towards its Nazi Armageddon, the ties of family, friendship and love are tested to the very limits of endurance. And the brothers are faced with an unimaginable choice…which one of them will survive?

The novel follows the Stengel family – Frieda, a community doctor, and Wolfgang, a Jazz musician, and their sons Otto and Paulus. The young couple works hard to make ends meet. But in 1920s Germany, when the country was reeling under the aftermath of the Great War, things aren’t always easy. Wolfgang gets lucky, though, when he meets Kurt, “Germany’s new kindergarten entrepreneurs, crazy alcohol- and drug-fuelled chancers” who loves jazz music and gives him a well-paying job at a nightclub. But once the crazy inflation is brought under control, Wolfgang finds himself, once again, unemployed. At Frieda’s insistence, he places an ad in the paper offering to teach music. And then enters Dagmar Fischer – the heiress to the Fischer fortune. And both Otto and Paulus fall head-over-heels in love with her – a love that lasts a lifetime and changes the course of their life.

Elton’s novel covers a broad sweep of history, and as it follows the Stengel family, it focuses on the many small and everyday ways in which Jews were impacted by the directives that came out of the Hitler camp and the rising anti-semitism in the country. One poignant vignette was when Frieda asks Frau Schmidt if she would still like her to deliver her baby. Frau Schmidt says she does, and then goes on to say that while these are unfortunate times for Frieda,

“you mustn’t fret, everyone knows that you are not one of them, Frau Doktor Stengel. The Jews in Berlin are different, aren’t they? I know two or three SA men with Jewish girlfriends.”

Those Jews are the “ones depicted weekly in the million-selling Der Sturmer magazine, who drink the blood of Christian virgins to fuel their dark Satanic rituals.” Reminds me of The Prague Cemetery and the fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

But when the order comes that Jewish doctors cannot treat non-Jewish patients, Frau Schmidt immediately asks for a German doctor, saying:

I know you have not done these things [drinking children’s blood], Frau Doktor, but many of your race have and if you yourselves can’t stop them then Herr Hitler must. Surely you must see that.

Then there’s the uncertainty faced by the Mischling – half Jewish, half German – which was ratified under the Nuremberg Laws, which stated:

every person in the country had to have their ‘blood’ categorized to determine how much ‘German’ blood they possessed and how much ‘Jewish’

And Frieda and Wolfgang knew then that their private family affair – that one of the twins is adopted and had German parents – cannot remain private any longer.

The narrative alternates between 1956, London, where one of the twins lives, and Germany from the 1920s onwards, which covers the story of Germany and of the Stengels and Fischers and the young twins and their love and devotion for Dagmar. There’s an element of mystery to the novel, because, for the longest time, you don’t know which brother survived the war. There’s love and laughter, pain and fear and terror, unimaginable inhumanity, unbreakable friendship, war and devastation.

If you like reading novels based on the Holocaust, this is one book you shouldn’t miss.

Disclaimer: I got a copy of this book from Random House India, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.

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