Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Alexander McCall Smith - The Sunday Philosophy Club

I had long wanted to read something by Alexander McCall Smith having had positive recommendations for the writer famous for his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.

Isabel, the protagonist of the series would probably note, isn't a recommendation positive to begin with? Isabel Dalhousie lives in Edinburgh, is in her early forties, is reasonably wealthy and edits The Review of Applied Ethics.  Edinburgh is a quaint town to the south-east of Scotland.  It is famous for its old buildings. Parts of it has been declared a World Heritage Site.  It has a temperate climate which makes it a very good place to live in.  McCall Smith's descriptions of the place are so affectionate and warm that it makes you wish you lived there.  Isabel's age is perfect too.  She is not a giddy youngster skidding through life, she is more settled and more apt to observe and mull upon what she sees.  She does this also because she is a philosopher. Her job brings her in contact with philosophical tracts that she has to edit for the journal - Review of Applied Ethics.  Her comfortable circumstances and single status also give her a freedom to follow her heart.

She is old enough to be an old fashioned girl.  She likes the telephone to be answered in a certain way, she adheres to certain routines and likes good manners in people.  She likes to be very moral and is constantly mulling over whether a certain act is morally right or not. She is also young enough to sometimes forget her own philosophy of life and be rash, outspoken and imprudent.  In fact she usually does something 'wrong' right after she has debated the issue in her mind, which makes it all the more funny. At one time, she does not shy away from following an unpleasent man who is dating her neice, just on a curious impulse.

And, oh, of course, each book solves a mystery.

I read Friends, Lovers and Chocolate first, which is second in the series.  I was a bit undecided about the book, but picked it up anyway.  This is the beauty of a borrowing books from a library.  If you don't like the book much or find it tedious, you can just return it half read. This makes you pick up a book more indiscriminately than you would if you were to buy it.  I read the book as fast as I could, it was that good. It also made me buy the first in the series - The Sunday Philosophy Club.

Isabel and a group of fellow philosophers used to run the Sunday Philosophy Club.  The name of this series is ironical, as the Sunday Philosophy Club is now defunct.  Isabel would like to revive it, relishing the idea of discussing philosophical issues with her friends, but as her two close associates - her neice Cat, and friend Jaime - note, Sunday is not an easy day on which to meet.

The story moves at a gentle pace and is full of delightful descriptions that is reminiscent of Jane Austen. A lady mystery solver is reminiscent of Agatha Christie.  Like Agatha Christie, the mystery is not always earth shaking.  The first novel deals with a possible murder, but the second one deals with visions that a person has. However, unlike Agatha Christie mystries, the mystery itself does not seem central to the plot, nor is Isabel always commissioned to solve the mystery. The mystery seems almost like a sideplot. It is Isabel's philosophical musings that take the centre stage.

It is the general drift of Isabel Dalhousie's life that is so charming.  Her laidback lifestyle, her appreciation of the arts, her tendency to philosophise over even mundane events, her sharp observations, her close friends, all these lay a grip on you and you want to read more and more about her. Isabel is close to her neice Cat, who runs a delicatessan.  Jaime is a musician and a close friend um, pretty pretty close.  Her housekeeper Grace is full of surprises and Isabel finds it edifying to consult her on several matters at hand.  Lovely Edinburgh is always in the background.  It is all these that make the series so captivating. I am listing the books in the series here to prevent you from hitting the wikipedia page, which is shamefully full of spoilers.

1.The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004)
2.Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005)
3.The Right Attitude to Rain (2006)
4.The Careful Use of Compliments (2007)
5.The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (2008)
6.The Lost Art of Gratitude (2009)

The last book came out in 2009 as we can see.  I hope the author continues with the series which would surely delight me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jonathan Stroud - The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Jonathan Stroud
These books are strictly for fantasy fiction fans.  Bartimaeus is a djinni with a formidable lineage.  He is ancient, 5000 years old.  Here is what wikipedia has to say about him:
The title character, Bartimaeus, is a five-thousand year old djinni, a spirit of approximately mid-level power. There are five basic levels of spirits; in order of increasing strength they are: imps, foliots, djinni, afrits and marids. Above these levels exist even more powerful entities, who are rarely summoned. Human magicians use spells to compel these spirits to perform feats of power.
Bart loves to hang out in the Other Place, where can while his time away in nothingness.  The earth is NOT his favorite place, he seems to dislike humans who can summon him through spells and incantations.  If he were to have his way, he would like to spot a mistake in the spells and gobble up the upstart who dared to disturb his peace.  It is merely because the spells are so binding that he is forced to do the bidding of his master.

At the start of the story, Bartimaeus finds himself pulled back to earth (London, to be specific) by a very correct pentagram and proper incantations by Nathaniel, a very young magicians apprentice.  He is give the difficult job of stealing the Amulet of Samarkand.  Soon we learn all about the precocious Nathaniel.  His parents gave him away to be trained as a magician ever since he was a little child.  He was taken in by Arthur Underwood as an apprentice.   Nathaniel is gifted, but his overbearing master is not in a hurry to teach him, hence he takes to educating himself, by reading books.

The place he lives in is London, but apart from the some shared geography and history, Stroud's London is a different place, peopled by magicians and commoners, djinns and spirits.  It is a tumultuous place,  ready to burst into a revolution, as the commoners are weary of the ruthless and ambitious magicians (politicians?).

Nathaniel is an unlikely hero, bumbling at times and a bit of a prig.  He is overambitious too, and Bartimaeus is an unlikely sidekick.  There is barely any love lost between them, or so it seems.  Bartimaeus is anything but a fawning or a supportive helper.  He is acerbic and loves bringing Nathaniel down a peg or two. Not exactly a Batman-Robin kind of a situation, we see.

Jonathan Stroud takes this unlikely team and gives us a trilogy that is funny, imaginative and full of all the things that we love in a fantasy, an alternate world, lots of magic and magical creatures.  The dangers that the major characters face are huge and seem real.  I don't know if the word 'funny' is enough to explain the humour in these books.  If you like British humour, Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse and all that, you will just love Stroud. In fact, if this magical world had been real, Stroud's books would have been described as a satire.  As the magicians play the role of a politician, I am not sure if it really IS a satire.

The Trilogy comes in three parts:

1. The Amulet of Samarkand :

 Here the story starts with a very young and scared Nathaniel summoning the ancient djinni Bartimaeus and sets him a task to steal the Amulet of Samarkand.  What starts as a prank to teach a fellow magician a lesson, turns into an adventure that seems clearly beyond the scope of Nathaniel.  In this book we get introduced to several characters that we will meet again during the rest of the trilogy.

2.  The Golem's Eye:                                                                            

A couple of years have passed, Nathaniel is more ambitious than before.  He is no longer the child he was.  But yet he finds himself facing troubles for which he can think of no other ally than his old acerbic friend, Bartimaeus.  Kitty, a character we meet in the passing in the first book has a larger role here.  She is the part of Resistance, the commoners' answer to the atrocities committed by the ruthless magicians.

3. Ptolemy's Gate:

The grand and the satisfying finale to the trilogy.  Kitty, Nathaniel and Bartimaeus find themselves facing a kind of danger they could not even imagine.  The solution has to come from ancient history, which is very painful for Bartimaeus.  Nathaniel must quit his supercilious ways if he is to spot the truth.

Comparisons are inevitable with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, but really, how can you compare?  Lord of Rings is in a class by itself.  It is an epic.  Harry Potter is, well, very popular, very different, it is more like a whole franchise.  Perhaps in scope, Jonathan Stroud's series is not as vast, but it is very sure.  There is no misstep anywhere, the humour in his books and the world weary Bartimaeus are the USP of the series.