Archive for March, 2019

March 22, 2019

December Reading (and other 2018 book things)

Normally, at the beginning of January I’d publish a post (or two) talking about what I’d read in the previous month and looking back at my reading (and thinking) across the year as a whole. And here it is, and it’s most of the way into March, which is probably telling. Delhi had its one week of glorious spring and I think this is now summer.

I’m going to try something different in 2019, and not publish monthly (or bi- or tri-monthly, of late) lists but maintain one list for the end of the year (I do want to keep track, and publicly for some reason), and talk about books I actually want to talk about as they occur. (Given the frequency with which I’ve written here recently, I won’t vouch for how often that might be …)

Quite a lot happened in 2018; I moved to India For Good, moved back to the UK, moved back to India (For Good?); had a really cool job (if only it hadn’t been a 6 month contract…); had two horrific family bereavements that I’m still trying to get my head around. And yet in many ways, the whole year felt like it passed by in a blur of recovery from the previous few years–I’ve started new and exciting things, I’ve done some work I’m really proud of, and yet everything still feels like aftermath.

 

Anyway. Some stuff I read in December:

Anthony Berkeley, The Wychford Poisoning Case: When last heard of (November), I’d read Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case and enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try one more in the series. It was very much what I’d expected from the first book, but I liked it less–the best characters in Chocolates are relatively minor ones, and the spreading around of perspective was much more appealing to me. I spent much of the book (spoiler alert?) yelling “has no one read Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison??!” before realising that no, they probably hadn’t (this was published a few years earlier) and concluding that everyone in the golden age was obsessed with arsenic eaters.

 

Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand: I’ve been looking forward to this, advertised as a Mughal-inspired epic fantasy. My Mughal history is pretty perfunctory–the CBSE syllabus from the late 90s and early 2000s, shored up by assorted snippets (and living in Delhi)–though even then I’m probably at an advantage over readers of this book who live in other parts of the world. As a result, it’s possible that I missed some of what made Suri’s world specifically Mughal, but the social structures felt true to most of what I know of medieval India generally. I struggled more with the disjointedness in my own head between djinn and (for want of a better phrase) magical Bharatnatyam.

That disconnect aside, I enjoyed this. Firstly because Empire of Sand takes on a fantasy trope that I love–magical contracts, and how you negotiate them. The protagonists have both inherited a supernatural trait by which promises or contracts made by them are seared into their skins and physically binding. Forced to swear allegiance to the Maha, a monstrous religious figure, they’re constantly looking for ways to work with those constraints while protecting each other and keeping a sort of faith with one another. This also feeds into a love I have for a particular fanfic trope, where plots are built to allow characters to precisely and tortuously map out their own boundaries in relation to each other, how consent works for them, etc. I think I might be too old to fully appreciate Suri’s sad, tortured hero, and I share Nibedita Sen’s questions here about gendered magic, which hopefully later books will clarify.

 

Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone: I’m still quite conflicted about how I feel about this book. Adeyemi’s prose is good, I’m enjoying the setting, and I’m genuinely looking forward to the next book, but I did often find myself frustrated with the structure. One of the inevitable consequences of dividing a narrative neatly between a set number of perspectives is that it implies a sort of equivalence in the weight afforded to each. Here, where one of the point of view characters is a member of an oppressed minority group, dragged unwittingly into a dangerous situation, the other two are from the powerful family who have participated enthusiastically in that oppression (even though they both have significant vulnerabilities to contend with), the result ends up feeling unbalanced. This is possibly enhanced because the book is so clear about how structured it is–two sets of siblings (both brother-sister pairings), each attracted to one (of the opposite gender) in the other set, point of view characters on either “side” of each conflict. Having said all of which, this giving us these particular points of view works exceptionally well towards the end, as one character we’ve been allowed to sympathise with and understand turns out to be too susceptible to the ideas he was raised with to change; it’s not a shocking twist, but it’s a very effective one.

 

Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater: As is probably clear from what I say above, I haven’t particularly enjoyed reading for most of the last year. Reading Freshwater at the end of December, I was honestly a bit shocked to realise that I was feeling energised and absorbed again. I’m not yet sure how to talk about this book usefully. I found that immersing myself in it worked wonderfully but has made it hard to think about in terms of actual words (and when I do I sound like a bad blurb–Did You Know this book is Rich, and Lyrical and Stylistically Daring?). Emezi’s on the Women’s Fiction Prize shortlist, which means that presumably a lot of people will be reading this book if they hadn’t already. I’m rather hoping that one of them will have the words. I can only say that it made me pace the room a lot.

 

Ram V, Dev Pramanik, Dearbhla Kelly and Aditya Bidikar, Paradiso Vol. 1: I was curious about this, as it’s been on some end of year lists; also because Bidikar’s an old friend and it’s just nice seeing him appreciated. I struggled a bit to get into this–there’s clearly some backstory and some worldbuilding that are going to become apparent as the series continues, but what I gathered of it all felt too much like other things I’d read before for it to strike me as a memorable thing in and of itself.

 

Some reading stats, as ever (disclaimers from previous years still apply): I read about 50 books, not counting (because I binged them over a couple of weeks, and am no longer sure which ones) some anthologies of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn stories–so the real number is probably closer to 60. 37 (ish) of the 50 were by authors who aren’t men (at least one’s nonbinary, and I don’t want to assume the others are all women). 28 were by authors who to my knowledge weren’t white, and as in previous years, I seem to have binge-read white women authors most–note that these stats do not even include the Ngaio Marsh binge.

 

And so on to 2019! She said, three months into 2019.