Thursday, January 11, 2018

Han Suyin - The Enchantress

Publisher: Bantam Books
Author: Han Suyin
Title: The Enchantress

Han Suyin is now out of fashion, her books are forgotten and out of stock. I read her in the 70s as some books of hers were scattered around our house.  My mother was a fan of hers, soon I was too.  I have never passed up a chance to pick up her books and have been greatly enriched by them.

The story begins in 1752 near the city of Lausanne where Colin Duriez lives with his twin sister Bea, his older half-brother Valentin and his mother and father. His father is a former pastor who gave up his calling to marry his mother.  The love between them is great. His father makes automata, little machines that are able to walk and do things.  His mother makes linen and lace and also ministers to woman with troubles who come to her for healing.

His mother also speaks to the elements and goes out at night to gather souls at times.  His sister Bea also has the gift. Colin and Valentin do not. This gift soon turns fatal and the children lose their parents.  Their cousin, Isabelle takes them in. Colin's father was the heir of the Baron of Neuchatel, which he gave up to marry their mother.  Their uncle was the current Baron but childless, Colin was now the heir. Bea and Colin find their new environment stifling and run away with the help of Valentin.

Fear of the long arms of baron of Neuchatel makes them embark on a long voyage with Abdul Reza. They travel by ship and reach Malabar. Colin's senses are enchanted by the beauty and color of the region.  Their destination is China, as it is there that Colin wants to make automata like his father. There are people there who await him. Colin and Bea land up in Yangchou where they are dazzled by China.  Colin and Bea work on the automata and meet many learned people.  They are forced to run from China when their sponsor is accused of treason.

They reach Ayuthia and are enchanted. Their life is blessed and they soon find love. Alas, Ayuthia is ruled by a crazed king who will do nothing to halt the Burmese invasion.  They are witness to the terrible sack of the beautiful city. In these troubled times the Siamese find their deliverance in a half Chinese, half Thai general, Taksin.

I have given almost the whole plot, you may feel. The beauty of the book is in the vivid descriptions of lives in Lausanne, Geneva, Malabar, Yangchou and Ayuthia in the second half of the eighteenth century.  It was a colourful time when the world was on the cusp of the age of science.

Han Suyin's beautiful language brings to life those times.  We cross the seas with Colin, feel the journey arduous with him, are captivated by the sheer color and magnificence of Asia along with him. It is not so much a story as an experience.  I was led to believe that The Enchantress of the title is Bea Duriez. It was actually the City of Authiya that was the true enchantress

It was an advantage as I have been to Ayutthya just a couple of months ago in November 2017, and took pictures of the Chedis burned down by the Burmese. Many golden Buddhas were hidden downstream by the Buddhist priests, these floated down and were rescued by the people and installed in various new chedis. The magnificent gold statue in the Emerald  Palace in Bangkok was also rescued in the same fashion.  The Kings Palace was razed to the ground and Ayutthya is dotted with such ruins.  I saw the beautiful canals, the lush greenery of the place, and could imagine just how enchanting the place must have been in its full glory.

The seductive and vibrant Far East comes alive in this book.  We learn of the brave, heroic and prescient Taksin who is able to halt the Burmese, wrest the land back from them and lay the foundation of the modern day Thailand.

The story of The Enchantress just not end with sack and recovery of Ayuthia, it continues in Lausanne in a most unexpected fashion. I was blown away by the last part of the book.

The book is so rich in detail, so evocative that it is perfect for a movie version or even a TV series. How I wish someone would bring it life on screen.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Carrie Bebris - North by Northanger

Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Author: Carrie Bebris
Title: North by Northanger

I do wonder if Jane Austen has spawned more derivatives than any author.  I certainly come across more of them. Such books have familiar characters you can latch on to immediately.  The rest is in the hands of the author, how successfully they are able to carry the illusion of a story taken forward.  Many fail miserably.  They make a hash of beloved characters and take the story into unbelievable places. Carrie Bebris, thankfully, does no such thing.

Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth, are still happily married a year after we left them in our beloved book.  They are expecting their first child.  On their way back from visiting Jane and Bath they are asked by Fredrick Tilney to stop by and visit them in Northanger Abbey as he wishes to reminiscence with them about friendship between their mothers, Anne Darcy and Helen Tilney. Mystified but curious, the Darcys agree.  What follows is deceit, false accusations, loss of family heirlooms, unfair imprisonment and discovery of a beautiful friendship through letters.

The story draws you in immediately.  The best part, in my opinion, is the very apt and beautiful quote at the head of each chapter taken from Jane Austen's correspondence with her sister Cassandra and also her various books. Sample these:

My hearing nothing of you makes me apprehensive that you, your fellow travellers and all your effects, might be seized by the bailiffs...
                                              Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra

I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.
                                               Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra

Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.
                                               Jane Austen, letter to Fanny Knight

These series go by the name of Mr. & Mrs. Darcy mystery.  Mr. Darcy, in this novel, does the footwork; Visiting places and gleaning information, chasing and apprehending criminals. Elizabeth gathers information, reads clues and figures out the mystery. Oh, she also gives birth to a baby.

The only thing that annoyed me a bit towards the end, was the sudden popping in of all the family members.  It seemed too contrived.  I am pretty sure no one gatecrashed at each others houses in those days.

At the start of the book there was a little Rebecca like atmosphere as Elizabeth feels overshadowed by references to her late mother-in-law Anne Darcy.  She is vital to the story, as most of the mystery Mr. & Mrs. Darcy are trying to unravel belongs to the past.

I loved the way the writer combines the characters from Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. I was sad that Catherine Tilney makes no appearance in it.

All in all this is a very interesting book. I look forward to reading other Mr. & Mrs. Darcy mysteries.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Jack Thorne - Harry Potter and The Cursed Child

Publisher: Scholastic Inc
Author: Jack Thorne
Title: Harry Potter and The Cursed Child

There is a reason why we run after derivative fiction.  We have fallen so hopelessly in love with the characters that we are not ready to see the back of them.  Hence we go and buy the various Jane Austen derivatives, the sequel to Gone with the Wind, what Sherlock Holmes did when he was old and so on. Sometimes we are rewarded, sometimes repulsed yet we recognize that we are really not free of the story we read.

When Harry Potter and The Cursed Child came out, there was an uproar among the readers. Of course, they had to all grab the book hot off the press.  Some were outraged at the new angle to the story, some charmed.  I am afraid I was influenced by the naysayers and refrained from reading the book.  It was time to amend that when I went to the neighborhood library in Houston and found posters for The Cursed Child all over the children's section.

The book starts where the last book ended.  The scene on the platform where Harry is sending off his second son, Albus Severus to Hogwarts.  For Harry and Hermoine the magic world was a splendid gift, as they came from the muggle world. Albus Severus is born into a Magic world and not really kicked up about going to Hogwarts.  He feels rather overshadowed by his famous father and is both mortified and thrilled that he is not sorted into Gryffindor but Slytherin.  On top of that, he makes friends with Scorpius Malfoy, the only son of Draco.

Along with Delphi, Cedric Diggory's cousin, Scorpius and Albus go off on a time travelling adventure through the past, trying to save Cedric's life.  Soon the boys realize that trying to rectify the past can have very serious consequences. 

As a fan of Harry Potter books, I admit the pain I felt when Voldemort roared, "Kill the spare" and ended the life of Robert Pattinson ... oops... I mean Cedric Diggory.  I hoped The Cursed Child would amend that awful bit.  It was a wonderful hook for a new story.  It adds a lot of spice to the book. The story is great.  It was conceived by J.K. Rowling after all, along with John Tiffany and Jack Thorne.

It was great to meet all the beloved characters once again.  Harry, Hermoine, Ron, Ginny, Draco, Prof. Gonagall, Snape, Cedric, Prof. Dumbledore and many others. Snape's famous acerbic wit was intact, thank the lord.  It was Ron who suffered in this sequel, he is seen as a jokester, a cool uncle but little else.  Hermoine is the Minister of Magic which is nice, but she does not really shine. We get to find out more about Draco and he is really the best part of the book (among the oldies).  The kids, Albus and Scorpius are wonderful.

This is a published script of a play, written by Jack Thorne on the story thrashed out by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne.  I can imagine how hard it must have been to stage such a play, which is required to be full of magic and spells and sudden change of scenes.  It would have been wonderful to watch, I am sure.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

David Sedaris - Naked

Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Author:     David Sedaris
Title:         Naked

Writing an autobiography can be both easy and hard. Here is a ready made story that you are privy to, your life. That is the easy part.  The hard part is being honest. Being honest about your own self may yet be easier but it is hard being honest about the people around you.  There are scores of relatives, parents, siblings who could be pissed off mightily by your depiction of them. This is the hardest part, in my opinion.

Naked contains memoirs of David Sedaris, narrated not as continuous story but in an episodic manner, picking up on a phase or a person in his life.  Hence, the chapter titled 'a plague of tics' deals with David's Tourette syndrome he had as a child, because of which he shook his head constantly and licked light switches or other objects. His teachers had no understanding of this and merely thought he was being difficult. 

His mother was a chain smoker and a heavy drinker.  His father was a penny pinching Greek.  His grandmother was a weird character who liked to crawl up the aisle in church. He read pornography as a little child and shared the books with his sisters. He went hitch hiking along with a quadriplegic girl. He spent summers picking apples and working in shady factories.

This is no story about whitewashed houses, sweet children, a mature father who imparts life wisdom to his children, a pretty mother who keeps the house spic and span and understands her children. This is a story of a dysfunctional family, which is pretty much the reality everywhere in the world. This is an account that invites you to look into a gaping wound.

If this makes you think this is an angst ridden work, no, it isn't. The narration is matter of fact and even funny. It is a parody of all the sweet autobiographies that you have read so far. There are several times that you will laugh out loud at the life of Sedaris children that is more Addams Family than Wonder Years.

Among the various blurbs about the book, I was struck by this accurate one.

Sedaris's prose is fierce and funny, full of feeling yet unsentimental. He brings people's flaws and foibles into a harsh and unforgiving light, often to delicious comic effect.
                                                                          ----Sam Hurwitt, San Francisco Examiner


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Rhys Bowen - Royal Blood

Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime, New York
Author:     Rhys Bowen
Title :        Royal Blood

What I love about libraries is the surprise they throw up now and then.  I can pick up titles without worrying whether I will like them or not.  If it is something boring, I can always return the book unread.  If I like it, well, I have discovered a new good author.  Also, the pressure to return the books within 15 days makes me read them quickly, unlike the books on my kindle which I take for granted.

I was browsing through the books in Jungman Neighborhood Library and feeling a little lost among the bookshelves.  This feeling is quite common when you are new in a library.  The way they arrange titles is a little novel and you need some time to get accustomed. So as I drifted up and down, I spotted these books by Rhys Bowen.  I could see that they were a series. In my confusion, I picked up No. 3 in the series, quite a crime in my eyes.  Something I will atone for by immediately reading up No. 1 and No. 2. Luckily, the books are standalone enough to be read randomly.

Lady Georgiana is 34th line to the throne, she is a cousin of King George. This does not make her a royalty we all would envy.  She has the title, the breeding and the schooling, but no money. If she wants to live the royal life she is entitled to, she will have to marry a rich Prince.  This is something her uppity sister-in-law Fig wants, so does the Queen, in fact.  They are always trying to put her in the way of some stinky rich, fish-faced royal.

She is called upon to do some sleuthing work now and then by the Queen, like trying to keep the Prince of Wales away from a frightful American divorcee. However, this time her assignment is simple, she is called upon to attend the royal wedding of her school friend Maria Theresa with Prince Nicholas of Bulgaria in Romania. It seems like a simple assignment, if a bit tiresome. She hires a highly inappropriate maid and sets off.

She is delighted to find that she is friends with the groom Nicholas, not so delighted to find that her unwanted suitor, Seigfried, is the brother of the bride. Fish-face Seigfried is pursuing her once more. Her best friend Belinda, who is only an Honorable, has also crashed the wedding.  Her mother has also landed up on the arm of her current boyfriend, Max, who is the godfather of Nicholas. 

Things get messy soon for Georgie.  A young man crashes into her room, seemingly bending towards her neck.  The bride is spotted with her mouth stained bright red.  Is is possible that she has walked into a lair of vampires?  A very important guest keels over at the dining table and dies, poisoned by cyanide. One more person falls off dangerous stairs and Georgie's maid goes missing.

Before she knows, Georgie is thick into another mystery that she has to solve quickly, before two important royal houses start a war with each other.

It was simply delightful to stumble across this engrossing well written book. It drips with humor and I was chuckling loudly as I read it.  Despite dealing with Royalty, it is not stuffy.  Lady Georgiana is constantly required to behave in a certain manner and has to struggle to maintain her status.

It is set in 1930s when King George reigned along with his consort, Queen Mary.  There are several historical references to real life personages to keep you in touch with the times.

The book is a potpourri of delights, a historical mystery about a fictional person set in real history. On top of it, it's funny and light and perfect for a quick read.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Honor Arundel - The High House

Publisher: Piccolo Books (1966)
Author: Honor Arundel
Title: The High House

Good books stay inside you forever, no doubt about that. I read this book when I was in my early teens, during the 70s. How it came to be in our house in Bangalore, I don't know.  My father was a compulsive book collector and somehow this was among his stuff. What could a Professor of Political Science have in common with a young adult novel? Nothing. Maybe one of his students left it in his house and he just lugged it around.

Whatever the reason, it was  fortuitous for me. I loved the book and read it several times. Later, nothing remained in my mind except that it was probably called High something and was about an orphan girl forced to live with her eccentric aunt.  I had to look for various combinations, trying my search via the name 'High Place' or something, and also via the plot. After much searching, I hit paydirt when I found a mention of the book on Goodreads.

From here it should have been plain sailing. But wait. The book was no longer in print, not on kindle and available only in certain countries. As I have a daughter in one of the countries, I asked her to buy the Emma series for me.  When I visited her, the books were on the bookshelf.  The first thing I did, before I had been cured of my jetlag, was to read them.

The High House is about a newly orphaned 13 year old girl, Emma, and her brother, Richard. They have lived happily in London in the comfort of their house, loved by their parents and looking forward to a good life. Tragedy strikes when their parents are killed in a car crash.  They have two aunts, sisters of their mother and father, who decide to take one child each.

Richard is offered a home with Aunt Laura, their father's sister, as she has a son already and figures that the boys will be good company for each other. Emma gets her mother's sister, Patsy.  Patsy is an artist and lives in Edinburgh.  She has a reputation for being eccentric.

Emma is methodical in her ways, a creature of habit.  She is horrified by the untidy aunt who cooks and cleans fitfully.  However, she is very kind to Emma.  After comparing notes with her brother, she finds that Aunt Laura would have been more suited to her tastes.  She is the one who runs her house like a ship, with set timings for everything.  In fact, once their Insurance money comes in, Laura may taken in Emma as well.

When the time comes, will Emma like to go away from her school, her friend Elizabeth, the ancient High House where Patsy lives, and her life in Edinburgh?

The book is beautifully written in a sparse style where more is conveyed through less. In skillful words we get a wonderful sketch of Emma, Aunt Patsy, Richard, Aunt Laura and the attractive city of Edinburgh.  It is a charming book and I can imagine why it did not leave my head even after nearly 5 decades.

Publisher: Piccolo (1968)
Author: Honor Arundel
Title: Emma's Island

This is a sequel to the wonderful book listed above.

Emma is now 15 and her eccentric Aunt Patsy and her new husband Stephan have suddenly decided to go live on Stranday, an island near Oban.  So poor Emma is uprooted once more.

Life on a small island is quite something else, and Emma soon learns how to tackle it.  Aunt Patsy cannot do without her, it is clear. Stephan also depends on Emma a lot and she is happy to be of use.

Things cannot remain the same, however.  Emma has to decide what to do after her school is up.  She ought to be thinking of college but is loth to leave the island.

She also feels the pangs of first love when she meets Alistair.

Publisher: Piccolo (1970)
Author: Honor Arundel
Title: Emma in Love

The lovesick Emma decides to continue her education in Edinburgh.  It would be lovely to be close to her brother Richard once more, not to mention Alistair who lives in nearby Glasgow. She returns to the school she went to when she last lived in Edinburgh, Parkhill and reunites with her friend Elizabeth.

Emma has a tendency to be a doormat because of which her brother Richard and her Aunt Patsy are content to walk all over her.  She is able to meet Alistair, but not as often as she likes.  Our beloved Emma has yet to learn of life and love.

These are young adult books and they are lovely. All written in a simple style and bring out the predicaments of Emma very well.  They are a far cry from the kind of young adult books available these days.

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