(Criminally late update? Let’s brush that under the carpet, shall we?)
Back in 2010, the Guardian suggested the page-99 test to find out if you want to read a book. In short, you read page 99 of the book in question to decide if it’s worth your time.
Since my new book, Hit for a Six, is a slim 148 pages long, I fear a page-99 test might be too much of a spoiler. Thus, here’s a middle-of-the-book test:
“I’m not very interesting, I don’t know why you want do a biography of me,” said Laila.
“We are supposed to pick someone ordinary,” replied Samir. His eyes widened in shock immediately as he realized what he’d said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that you were boring or anything!”
“It’s fine.” But she was slightly stung anyway.
She had agreed to meet him in Chandnisarai’s new coffee shop called Conversations. It was not a very apt name because the music was so loud, you could barely hear yourself think. Also, everything was very expensive. Laila had ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, which turned out to be black coffee and was revolting, even after emptying four sachets of sugar in it.
Most of my August was spent in the brilliant mind of the British children’s and YA author, Frances Hardinge. I’ve been ploughing through her books and marvelling at the sheer brilliance of her imagination. I believe, like the protagonist of the latest book of hers I read, A Face Like Glass, Hardinge too is a little insane, and that insanity definitely makes her a genius unparalleled in the world of children’s writing. High praise? Yes. And she deserves it. I can’t imagine why the world isn’t talking about her more.
It all started when I need some inspiration to write a horror story for a Scholastic anthology. Horror can be such a versatile and imaginative genre, yet it is riddled with tired, old clichés. While I thoroughly regretted saying yes to attempting a horror story, the other part of me saw it as a challenge to write something “different”. (This might be the right place for a shoutout to Marie and Kate for helping me brainstorm and pin down an idea.) One such inspiration-generating exercises constituted picking up Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song. This is what the blurb said:
When Triss wakes up after an accident, she knows that something is very wrong. She is insatiably hungry; her sister seems scared of her and her parents whisper behind closed doors. She looks through her diary to try to remember, but the pages have been ripped out.
Now tell me that isn’t completely creepy. What I realized from reading Cuckoo Song is that Hardinge is a complete whizz at four things: a) creating atmosphere; b) world building; c) fantastic female protagonists; and d) taking a dig at society. All of this was further underlined by the next two books of hers that I picked up, Fly by Night and A Face Like Glass.
Fly by Night was her first novel, a by-the-seat-of-your-pants fantasy adventure middle-grade novel featuring the irrepressible Mosca Mye, her homicidal gander, Saracen, and a decidedly shady travelling companion called Eponymous Clent. Mosca, all of 12, is a magnet for trouble and tumbles headfirst into political intrigue comprising secret guilds, floating coffeehousees, demented dukes and generally conniving townspeople. Though loosely set on 18th-century England, it is by no means historical fiction.
Next, I picked up A Face Like Glass, which has been my favourite so far. It features another fascinating 12-year-old as the main character, Neverfell, who falls into a vat of cheese as a little girl and is brought up by the reclusive cheesemaker, Grandible. The setting is the underground city of Caverna, where “the world’s most skilled craftsmen toil in the darkness to create delicacies beyond compare. They create wines that can remove memories, cheeses that can make you hallucinate and perfumes that convince you to trust the wearer even as they slit your throat.” Only, the people of Caverna have no expressions; they must, instead, learn Faces to be used depending on the occasion. Neverfell is an exception, for she has a face like glass, completely transparent to whatever she is thinking, and she must wear a mask to keep this horror from her fellow-Cavernans. However, while chasing a rabbit down a hole (yes, really!) Neverfell sets in motion a chain of events that leads to a revolution.
Hardinge has written many more books. Needless to say, they are on my reading list.
Should you review a book you’re not sure you’ll finish? Don’t know the answer to that one, so I just won’t call this a review.
To be fair, I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to read Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil so I can’t exactly moan about feeling let down. It sort dropped into my lap when a friend procured it and asked if I wanted to read it before she got around to it. I wanted a break from bingeing on Frances Hardinge, so I said yes. Verdict so far: bordering on the tedious.
Career of Evil is the third in the Cormoran Strike series. I’m not going to rehash the story, so suffice it to say that this is a different mystery for Strike and Robin Ellacot—instead of being hired by clients, they investigate a problem of their own, which is, to find out who has sent a severed leg to Ellacot and why. The investigation takes them deep into Strike’s past, and so far (about half way into the book) we are none the wiser what the answers might be.
I love reading crime, but somehow have never warmed to this series. There is no doubt that J.K. Rowling is a fantastic storyteller, but the Strike series has always seemed to many notches below the quality of work that the likes of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and the late Reginald Hill, to name a few, have produced. Moreover, irrespective of media, I have grown tired of casual sexism in the stories I want to read and see. This, I am sorry to say, makes the Cormoran Strike novels somewhat difficult to plough through.
Rowling-as-Galbraith has the same lucidity to her writing that made Harry Potter such a joy. But while in the Potter books the sheer brilliance of the story and world building allowed you to ignore all else, in the Strike series this is not so. I’m referring mostly to the paternalistic treatment of Robin Ellacot, and I find it hard to reconcile the sorted and articulate Rowling on social media with the benevolent sexism and misogyny of Galbraith. In particular, I did not appreciate the back story suddenly thrust upon Robin.
I may finish this book, mostly because I have nothing else to read right now. (I hear the books are going to be made into a TV series. Hoping it’ll be better than the books.)