Monday, September 29, 2014

A trio of thrillers

I read three books in a row last week that would be shelved in the mystery section of the bookstore, but they were more novels of suspense than traditional whodunits.  They had little in common, in terms of plot and setting, but they were all three great fun to read.

A River in the Sky, Elizabeth Peters

Published in 2010, this is Elizabeth Peters' last book.  It features her most popular characters, Amelia Peabody and her husband Radcliffe Emerson, as well as the usual supporting cast of their son Ramses and adopted daughter Nefret, their young friend David, the inquisitive butler Gargery, and Egyptian assistants Daoud and Selim.  Unusually for a Peters book, though, there is only one cat, who makes just a single cameo appearance.  The setting is also unusual: rather than working in Egypt, the Emersons are drawn to Palestine, where Ramses is already working on a dig in Samaria.  Since Emerson has been banned from excavating in Egypt, he and Amelia are at something of a loose end when they are approached by a Major Morley, who claims to have an ancient scroll that reveals the location of the lost Ark of the Covenant.  He intends to travel to Jerusalem and find it (the theme song from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" immediately began playing in my head).  Though Emerson all but throws him bodily out, at the request of His Majesty's government he later agrees to follow Morley to Palestine and keep an eye on him.  Meanwhile, Ramses stumbles upon evidence that the German government might be trying to stir up trouble for the British in the area.  I thought this was a really fun read, with Amelia in particularly fine form.  Though the last book written, it is set earlier in the series, in 1911.  Elizabeth Peters had begun filling in some of the gap years with her last books (as Laurie R. King is doing with her next Russell and Holmes book).  This one is set just before the big Romantic Drama with Ramses and Nefret takes center stage - a storyline I find a bit tedious, while fully appreciating Ramses as the Romantic Hero.  I'm glad there were only hints of it here.  I still have one more of the Emerson books to read, Guardian of the Horizon.  I've been putting it off because it's a return to the setting of The Last Camel Died at Noon, Peters' homage to H. Rider Haggard, which with all due respect to one of my favorite authors, I find a little silly.

To Dwell in Darkness, Deborah Crombie

It has been a long nineteen months since Deborah Crombie left us with an awful cliff-hanger on the last page of The Sound of Broken Glass. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak last Friday at Murder by the Book. I had just finished this new one earlier in the day, in case she left us hanging like that again. Which she does, but I found the ending here less frustrating.  (Ms. Crombie seemed disappointed when I told her that.)  This story revolves around London's St Pancras Station (in her talk, Ms. Crombie mentioned that she is having a love affair with Victorian architecture). Duncan Kincaid, formerly of Scotland Yard, has been transferred and effectively demoted, without explanation, to head a murder investigation team out of Holborn Police Station.  When a group of eco-protesters, intending to set off a smoke bomb in St Pancras, instead sets off a white-phosphorous bomb, killing the young man holding it, the case lands on Duncan's desk.  As he and his team investigate, they find that the protest group is not exactly what it seems, particularly one member, who in the wake of the incident has disappeared.  Meanwhile, Duncan's former sergeant Gemma, now his wife and an  officer herself, is tracking a young woman's killer.  But her own sergeant, Melody Talbot, who was present when the bomb went off, is drawn more into helping Duncan with his case.  Here also I enjoyed meeting these characters again, they feel like old friends.  While Gemma's case is a traditional police procedural, Duncan's felt more like a thriller, and with the terrorist element, very much of the moment.  It also links to the previous two stories in intriguing and rather disturbing ways.  On the other hand, the book does feature a litter of adorable kittens (though at one point, I was distinctly uneasy about their fate).  I really hope it won't be eighteen months before the next book.

The Traveller Returns, Patricia Wentworth

How appropriate that my Hodder re-print of this book has a quote from Mary Stewart, though "Very well written" isn't the most exciting blurb.  Reading this, I was instantly reminded of The Ivy Tree.  The book opens with Anne Jocelyn returning to England in mid-1944.  Everyone thought she was dead, shot on a beach in Brittany as her husband Philip tried to rescue her by boat from the advancing Nazis.  Philip brought the body of his wife home and buried her.  Now Anne arrives, insisting that in the confusion of the evacuation he made a mistake: it was her cousin Annie Joyce who was shot, while she was left behind to face the Germans.  Her cousin Lyndall and Aunt Milly stifle their doubts and welcome her home.  Philip however refuses to accept her.  I admit, in the first three chapters, I changed my mind about Anne four times.  I wasn't the only one, though an old friend of Annie Joyce is sure that she would know the difference between the two.  That old friend, Nellie Collins, meets Miss Maud Silver on a train up to London, and tells her the whole story.  When Miss Collins is later found dead from an apparent road accident, Miss Silver calls the police.  Meanwhile, Lyndall follows Anne into a beauty shop and overhears some very disturbing words, which she eventually brings to Miss Silver.  Ensconced in her cozy sitting room with her knitting, Miss Silver still manages to stay one step ahead of the police, though the plodding Chief Detective Lamb ignores her suggestions and scoffs at her deductions - until she is proved right, and then he claims all the credit.  His sergeant Frank Abbott, an old friend of Miss Silver's, is smarter than his boss and will probably go further.  So far I've read three books with Miss Silver, all set during the Second World War.  By my count, there are twenty-four more, and I can easily see myself collecting them all (I already have two more on the TBR stacks).  They may tend toward the cozy side, but Miss Silver is one tough cookie, and those who do evil tend to get what is coming to them. She sees herself as an agent for justice, "which she would certainly have spelt with a capital letter."  But she isn't self-righteous or pious about it, she just gets on with the job at hand.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In the footsteps of Kipling and his Kim

Quest for Kim, Peter Hopkirk

I am blessed with bookish friends who read deeply, immersing themselves in books like I do, so that the characters come alive for us.  When a new member of one of my book clubs complained, "You talk about these characters like they are real people," I thought, umm, yes, and what's wrong with that?  We can spend hours discussing them, comparing theirs to other stories we have read, projecting their lives into the future.  I've had friends join me on literary pilgrimages, visiting scenes from favorite books or their authors' lives.  I've also found these kinds of readers on-line, first through listservs and now with blogging.  I don't often come across them within books, though.  I had never heard of Peter Hopkirk before I found this at Half Price Books, but after only a few pages I recognized a kindred spirit.

The subtitle of his book is "In Search of Kipling's Great Game."  What he set out to do was "[retrace] Kim's footsteps across Kipling's India to see how much of it remains."  Unlike Mr. Hopkirk, I did not grow up with Kim, or with Kipling's books at all.  I must have seen the Disney version of "The Jungle Book," from 1967.  I remember a 33 rpm record for our little children's player, with "The Bare Necessities" on one side  (Just typing that starts the words running through my head - [pause to watch a YouTube video] - and my day just got noticeably brighter.)  But it was years before I picked up any of Kipling's books, and even longer before I realized I had only read a selection of The Jungle Books, and none of The Just So Stories.  And typing that made me think it's been too long, Best Beloved, since I read The Just So Stories.  But I digress.  While I read Kim somewhere along the way, it was Laurie R. King who really made me appreciate it with her book The Game, a Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell story set in 1920s India.  In an afterword, she says that her book "may be read as a humble and profoundly felt homage to Rudyard Kipling's Kim, one of the great novels of the English language . . . a book for any age."  It was only just now, in checking for that quote, that I saw her acknowledgement that her book owes much to -- Peter Hopkirk.  It's the Circle of Books.

Reading Kim at a young age, Mr. Hopkirk became fascinated with India and with the "Great Game," "the century-long Anglo-Russian struggle for the mastery of Asia which, to the British at least, ultimately meant India."  This fascination led him into the Army, hoping to serve in India (he was sent to Somalia instead).  It also led him to research and write about different facets of the Game, published in five books over the years (some of which I will probably be reading).  After the last, he decided to go back to the source of it all, Kipling and Kim, at first purely for his own interest and curiosity.

He begins his journey in Lahore, where Kim opens, with the title character "in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher - the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum."  From there, he traces Kim's journey with the old Tibetan lama down to Lucknow and Benares (today Varansai), and eventually into the Great Game.  He lightly sketches in the main events of the story, just enough to provide context, while constantly encouraging his readers to pick up the original and read for themselves.  Along the way, he looks for the originals of the story's characters, beginning with Kim himself.  I knew so little of Kipling's life that I did not even realize that his own father was the keeper of the Wonder House, written almost unchanged into his son's story.  Mr. Hopkirk also looks for the sites where the events of the story take place, such as La Martinière College in Lucknow, which Kipling transformed into St Xavier in Partibus, the school (also in Lucknow) to which Kim is sent.  As he discovers, he is far from the first to try and match fact with fiction.  Sometimes, as when he tries to locate the extraordinary Lurgan Sahib's shop in Simla, he finally has to admit defeat (while still hoping that a lead will turn up eventually).

Kim and his lama can move easily between Lahore and Lucknow.  Today, those two cities are in different countries, and Mr. Hopkirk finds it impossible to follow their exact route, even by train.  Many of the places he visits, at least in the first half of his book, were the scenes of terrible violence and devastation during the Partition of India and Pakistan, in 1947.  At times it seemed like I was seeing three images of Pakistan and India super-imposed: Kim's fictional world, the one Mr. Hopkirk was travelling through in the early 1990s, and hanging over it all, the events of 1947.

This is a true literary pilgrimage, and a historical one, and I enjoyed it immensely.  Mr. Hopkirk's deep affection for Kim suffuses his book, though he acknowledges that it is of its time, with elements that trouble today's readers.  Nevertheless, his enthusiasm is catching.  I have made myself a little stack, of Kim, as well as Laurie King's The Game, and some of Kipling's books that I have had on the TBR shelves for far too long.  I might start with his posthumous autobiography, Something of Myself.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday miscellany: Sanditon, TV, and cats

Happy Sunday afternoon!  I hope it is the start of a good week.  We're supposed to see some fall-ish weather later in the week, which for Houston means temps in the low 80s.  Even more than cool weather, I am looking forward to Deborah Crombie's new book, To Dwell in Darkness, which will be released on Tuesday.  She will be signing at Murder by the Book on Friday, and I will be there.

Yesterday our Houston JASNA branch met, to discuss Jane Austen's last, unfinished work, now known as Sanditon.  Austen began it in January of 1817, but she had to give up working on it in March as her health declined, leading to her death that July.  Her manuscript is now at King's College, Cambridge, which has digitized it as part of their "Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts" project (you can see the pages here).  The complete manuscript was first published by the Austen scholar R.W. Chapman in 1925, and one of our members brought her first edition to the meeting.  My own introduction to Sanditon was through a one-volume collection of the "Minor Works," part of The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen (also edited by Dr. Chapman).  My edition includes the Juvenilia, Lady Susan, and The Watsons, as well as Sanditon.  I had only read Sanditon once, and it didn't leave much impression on me, I think because there is just so much in this combined edition.  I should have read the four very different works separately, each on its own terms - as I have done with the Juvenilia and Lady Susan.

Re-reading Sanditon was a revelation.  It is a satirical look at a seaside town on the south coast of England, which two of its residents are promoting with all their might.  One of the investors, Mr Parker, is as effervescent as Mr Weston in preaching the merits of "a young & rising Bathing-place, certainly the favourite spot of all that are to be found along the coast of Sussex."  He constantly points out the benefits of sea bathing and sea breezes, and with his coadjutor Lady Denham he schemes to lure people to fill the cottages and the Terrace waiting for summer visitors.  He is in hopes that his two sisters and brother will also come, and a funnier set of hypochondriacs I have never met.  His younger brother Arthur's lectures on why toast must be slathered with butter, and the horrors of green tea, top even Mr Wodehouse's paeans to gruel and Hartfield eggs softly boiled.  There is a young man who has read too many novels and aspires to be a seducer; Lady Denham, who has married twice and inherited both husbands' estates, to the discomfort of their families; Charlotte Heywood, a young woman staying with the Parkers, who watches all the antics with a cool, detached, amused eye; and most intriguingly, a young heiress from the West Indies, Miss Lambe, "half Mulatto."  In the discussion, Miss Lambe brought to mind "Belle" Lindsay, with whom Jane Austen may have been familiar through family connections.

I felt that in Sanditon, Jane Austen was trying something new.  The story has such energy, with people rushing around - it even opens with a carriage accident!  And as we considered in the discussion, it is focused on a commercial enterprise, creating a sea-side resort out of a sleepy village.  And while there are several eligible females, and three single men (if you count the hypochondriac Arthur), it isn't clear who if anyone will pair off.  I also think it is amazing that Austen could write such a satire of hypochondriacs while she herself was so ill.

I know there is a continuation of Sanditon, "By a Lady," which has been enthusiastically recommended to me.  I usually avoid Austen sequels and spin-offs like the proverbial plague, but I am a little tempted.  I so wish we could know what Austen intended with this story.  Have you read Sanditon, or the sequel?  If so, what do you think - about where Austen's story would have gone, about the story she did write, whether the sequel is worth reading.

My Tivo box is acting up again.  It is claiming that it's unable to connect to my wi-fi, though everything else in the house can. Now it's stuck on a single screen, and nothing I've tried will unblock it.  The Tivo website hasn't been helpful, so the next step would be to call them, I guess.  At this point I can't even watch TV.  On the other hand, though, I am wondering if this isn't a good time to cut the TV cord - or at least cancel my cable.  My bill keeps inching up, but I only watch a very few of the 700+ channels available.  I have a premiere level, so I can get the Turner Classic Movies channel, but I record far more than I ever watch. And in reality, I generally end up flipping through channels, only to end up with something that I don't really want to watch, out of inertia.  I do watch stuff through Netflix streaming, but I can do that without cable.  And I have been reading about some of the other services, like Hulu and Apple TV, which seem more cost-effective.  I think I'm going to let the TV sit, see how it goes this week.  I think that having it shut off might give me more time to read, and maybe a bit more mental energy, especially if I cut out the mindless watching.

James at James Reads Books has announced the impending arrival of a new dog in their family.  I have also added to mine, a new cat.  She is two years old, so technically an "older cat," the kind that are harder to place, because people want kittens.  She's a "dilute calico," which I've learned means mostly white, with the calico colors "diluted" - red, brown, and grey splotches.  My older cat Sophie (aged 8) is Not Amused.  Here she is keeping a wary eye out:

Sophie is named for The Grand Sophie, but under the pressure of the newcomer, she is acting more like Eugenia Wraxton.  On my vet's recommendation, I now have a dry food called "Calm," which includes tryptophan.  The new kitty does not yet have a name.  She was originally Eowyn, and then Eve - neither of which I like.  She is totally copying Sophie, where she sleeps, sits, eats - even how she sits or sprawls.  And she so desperately wants to be friends!  I am considering little sisters' names, like Ginny Weasley, which would be appropriate for a red-head.  But after Sanditon, I'm also thinking of Charlotte.  I have never had this much trouble naming a cat!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Two sisters finding their way

Short Girls, Bich Minh Nguyen

The "short girls" of the title are two sisters, Van and Linh (Linny) Luong.  They have just been summoned home to Michigan, where they grew up in a suburb of Grand Rapids, by their widowed father Dinh:
After twenty-eight years of stubbornness her father was finally taking his oath of citizenship, letting go at last of his refugee status and the green Permanent Resident Alien Card.  He had taken the test, handed over his fingerprints, had his background checked - the last of his friends to do so.  To celebrate, he was throwing a party in the old style, the way all of the Vietnamese families in their town used to gather in the late seventies and eighties, finding relief in their free-flowing beer and language.  It would be a reunion, a remembrance of their collective flight from Vietnam and settlement in America - 1975 all over again.
It is not a convenient time for either daughter to return home.  Van, the elder, born just months after her parents arrived in the United States, is a lawyer working on immigration cases for an Ann Arbor firm.  She has not told either her father or her sister that she recently suffered a miscarriage, nor the equally devastating news that her Chinese American husband Miles has left her. "I don't think I want to live with you anymore," he said one evening, and walked out.  Van, who put all of her energy, all of herself, into her education, her law degree, and then her marriage, is left drifting, waiting for Miles to call, to come home.

Her sister Linny is a bit adrift as well.  More easy-going than her sister, she has always been considered the beauty of the family, with Van the smart one.  Linny slid through school, more interested in clothes and boys and parties, though she also spent many hours in the kitchen with her mother, learning traditional Vietnamese dishes.  She found it difficult to focus in college and eventually dropped out to work at various low-paying jobs.  After her mother died, she left small-town Michigan behind for Chicago.  Now she has put her cooking experience to work for a company that prepares ready-made, rather bland meals for busy families.  Delivering the meals, she met a married man, Gary, with whom she has been carrying on an affair for several months.  Naturally this isn't news she is eager to share with her father or her sister.  Nor is she excited about returning home for her father's party, because she will have to buy and prepare all the food.

After so many years, Mr. Luong has finally decided to become a U.S. citizen because he believes it will help him patent and sell his inventions, the Luong Arm, a metal rod with a claw on the end; and the Luong Eye, a periscope-type device.  Both the devices are designed for short people, to help them reach things and to see in crowds.  He spends most of his time in a basement workshop, tinkering with them and developing new ideas.  Mr. Luong is obsessed with height differences.  He believes that Asians suffer discrimination in America because they are shorter, on average.  All their lives, he has reminded his daughters that they are short, so they must work hard to overcome that disadvantage. He is absolutely convinced that his inventions will not only make him rich and famous, but also improve the lives of short people beyond measure.

In chapters that alternate between Van and Linny, the sisters reluctantly face returning home.  The story moves between the past and present, as they look back on their childhood, growing up with first-generation immigrant parents, trying to find a balance between Vietnam and America.  But their parents bought a house in a predominately-Anglo neighborhood, rather than within the Vietnamese community, which tipped that balance toward America, at least for their daughters.  The sisters look at their parents' marriage, in light of their own relationships and the choices they have made.  Their lives have gone in very different directions, and they have lost the closeness of their shared childhood.  The party brings them together again, sometimes in shared exasperation with their father, and offers an opening to reconnect.

There is obviously a lot going on in this book.  The characters are struggling with issues of identity on several levels.  Van seems to have lost herself, even more than her husband.  Both she and Linny are still working through the loss of their mother Thuy, who is a vivid presence in the story through their memories.   They are also grappling with what it means to be family, and what makes a marriage.  At least the two sisters are.  Mr. Luong down in his basement has his own obsessions, his own expectations of his daughters.  He also has a busy social life with his old friends in the immigrant community, though Van and Linny have lost touch with their friends.  Van's legal work with immigrants of all backgrounds throws another light on that issue, which takes on a particular urgency after September 11th.

I thought that Ms. Nguyen did a great job of balancing all of these themes.  Her characters felt very real to me.  I found myself as exasperated as the sisters with Mr. Luong's self-centeredness and obsessions, but that was nothing compared to the loathing I felt for Van's husband Miles.  I so longed for someone to sit Van down and tell her just how much better off she was without him.  He adds an interesting element to the story, though, as a thoroughly-assimilated Chinese American, from a wealthy West Coast family, very different from Van's small-town midwestern family, with "fobby" parents (short for "fresh off the boat").  I also appreciated that the author did not wrap everything up neatly in a happy ending.  I would like to revisit these characters in a few years, and see where their lives have taken them.

I learned about this book from the same Book Riot post that introduced me to Shilpi Somaya Gowda's Secret Daughter.  I have been saving their recommendations for the "A More Diverse Universe" reading challenge, hosted by Aarti at Book Lust.  I'm really glad I chose this one!  I will also be reading Ms. Nguyen's memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, which mixes food and the immigrant experience.  Like her characters here, she also grew up in Grand Rapids.  When I moved to Texas from Michigan, I discovered that Houston has been a hub for Vietnamese immigration since the 1970s, but I had no idea that Michigan was another.  I look forward to learning more about that community with Ms. Nguyen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Celebrating Mary Stewart Week

Touch Not the Cat, Mary Stewart

Here we are in the second annual Mary Stewart Reading Week, hosted by Anbolyn of Gudrun's Tights.  Though I have read the first two of Stewart's Merlin books to pieces over the years, I had only read one of her modern suspense novels, which did not inspire me to read more.  But last year Anbolyn's posts about her books did, and I began collecting them.  My favorite, far and away, has been The Ivy Tree (though Nine Coaches Waiting is also pretty amazing).  I think The Ivy Tree has become the standard against which I measure her other books.

In choosing what to read for this week, I was spoiled for choice, with seven on the TBR stacks.  I had originally planned to finish the Merlin trilogy with The Last Enchantment.  But I've had Touch Not the Cat in mind ever since a poll about Mary Stewart's books suggested it as the perfect one for me (now I can't find the link to it).  I was also encouraged by my friend Susan, a fellow Heyer and Wodehouse reader (among many other authors), who told me it is her favorite of Stewart's books. [Correction: it's third on her list, not her top favorite.]  I was glad to hear that, because I had actually started this book once before and given up on it in the second chapter.

I had read nothing about this book, even the back cover of my tattered paperback, but the first line set the stage for the story that follows: "My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him."  The speaker is Bryony Ashley.  The message she receives concerns her father Jonathan, who has been the victim of a hit-and-run accident in Germany - which may not have been an accident.  Bryony arrives too late to see him. She is left with the disconnected words he muttered in his last moments, about danger to her, and about papers and books and keys, and a cat.  She takes those words and his ashes back to their home in England, Ashley Court, "a moated manor that was built piecemeal by a series of owners from the Saxons on, none of whom had heard of damp courses . . ."  Due to an entail, the Court passes to the next male heir, her cousin Howard, whose three sons spent much of their childhood at the Court with Bryony's family.  There is her father's estate to sort out, and her own future, as well as her unease over his death.  Her cousins meanwhile have to decide what to do about the crumbling Court, which even the National Trust won't take on, despite its ancient history.

I found much to enjoy in this book, particularly after Bryony returns to England and settles again into life at the Court - starting with the cozy small cottage where she actually lives, the kind many of Stewart's heroines inherit.  She meets old friends again, including the Vicar of the parish. And there is Rob Granger, the son of a local farmer, who grew up with the Ashley children and now works at the Court.  It was fun to explore the Court, with its moat and maze and grand library.  And I like mysteries that involve complicated family situations, with wills and entails and all-too-convenient deaths.

What did not work so well for me was Bryony's lover.  Normally, I also enjoy supernatural elements to a story, as in Barbara Michaels' books.  Here a strain of telepathy runs through the Ashley family, all the way back to an ancestress who was burned for a witch.  All her life Bryony has had this link with someone, a man around her own age, with whom she shares "sudden blocks of intelligence that are thrust into one's mind and slotted and locked there . . ."  She doesn't know who it is, though she suspects it is one of her Ashley cousins.  He knows who she is, though.  So I couldn't quite work out why she doesn't know who he is.  She used to address him as "Boy" or "Ashley," but now calls him "Lover," because as they matured their connection has changed.  "And if it seems absurd that one should need and offer love without knowing the body one offers it to, I suppose that unconsciously the body dictates a need which the mind supplies."  Huh? That almost makes it sounds like her mind invented this lover!  I was quite willing to take him on faith, so I found the various attempts to explain and define their connection confusing, unnecessary distractions.  It didn't help that every time Bryony called him "Lover," I had this flash of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in "Dirty Dancing" ("How do you call your lover boy?")  On the other hand, I identified the Lover long before Bryony did, even if I had to check ahead to be sure I was right.

This wasn't my favorite of Mary Stewart's books - I don't think it measures up to The Ivy Tree - but I have a feeling I will enjoy it more in the re-reading.

N.B. I am also counting this book in the R.I.P IX Challenge, as the first toward my goal of Peril the First.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Industrial revolution, Discworld-style

Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett

The cover of this, the 40th novel in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, shows a train hurtling through the darkness:

It's such an apt cover, not just because the story deals with the coming of steam power and the railroad to the Disc, but also because the plot hurtles along at almost warp speed.  I was a little concerned sometimes that the wheels were coming off the rails, but Mr. Pratchett kept a steady hand on the controls, bringing his story into a neat terminus.

I'm tempted to see how many more railroad metaphors I can work into this - but I'll stop now.

The last few books of this long series have brought some rapid changes to Mr. Pratchett's world, particularly the great city of Ankh-Morpork. Some have been social, such as the liberation of golems, or the integration of vampires (at least those who forswear blood) and now goblins into society.  Others are technological, like the invention of the printing press and a telegraph system (the "clacks").   Of course there are always those who oppose change, who believe that the old ways are best.  This is carried to extremes in the dwarf community, where ultra-traditionalists preach against the contamination of the modern world.  This includes the female dwarfs who, while looking just like males, beards and all, are coming out as female and even daring to dress differently.  Led by the grags, who wear burqa-like garments, the ultras are putting words into action with attacks on the clacks towers.  More moderate and progressive dwarfs feel helpless in the face of their fanaticism and willingness to use violence.  The parallels to our own world are obvious.

Unfortunately for the grags, even bigger changes are on the way.  The catalyst for the next step in the Disc's Industrial Revolution is steam power, driving an engine running on rails.  When it arrives in Ankh-Morpork, the city's ruler Lord Vetinari is determined to harness this new invention for the benefit of his city.  He assigns that task to an official of the Royal Mint, Moist von Lipwig.  Moist is one of my favorite characters in the entire series (despite his unfortunate name).  He is a con man, the perfect Trickster, whom Vetinari appointed Postmaster General - as an alternative to hanging him - in Going PostalThe Discworld Companion describes him as "A natural born criminal, an habitual liar, a fraudster and a totally untrustworthy perverted genius."  But he's also great fun to read about, as he turns that genius first to remaking the postal service and then the Royal Mint.  Here he is the grease that keeps the wheels moving, as the rail lines spiral out from Ankh-Morpork.  Vetinari orders him to drive the rails all the way to Überwald, the distant country where the Low King of the Dwarfs is facing off against the ultra-traditionalists.  Meanwhile, the grags have found a new cause.

Obviously, there is a lot going on in this book. There are three major plot lines, and the cast of characters is huge, many of them like Moist returning from earlier books.  There are quite a few new characters introduced as well, starting with the engineer Dick Simnel, whose engine the Iron Girder takes on a life of her own in the story.  Mr. Pratchett has fun with some sly cameos as well, including Mrs Georgina Bradshaw, who begins writing guides to the areas she visits on the railway; and Edith Nesmith, a child who loves stories and might grow up to write one about children and railways someday.

I did wonder about the absence of one character, though: Captain Carrot, a dwarf by adoption (he is well over six feet tall), who has risen quickly in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.  Dwarfs play such a major part in this story, with their deadly disagreements over what it means to be a proper dwarf, and the place of dwarfs in modern society.  I can't quite see Carrot sitting all that out.  For one thing, as the most prominent dwarf above ground, and not just because he's the tallest, he would be a target for the grags.  But then this book isn't exactly lacking in characters, and I suppose Mr. Pratchett couldn't really include everyone from all the books (though it feels that way at times).  Even DEATH only gets one scene, though with the body count in this book, he was presumably lurking in the wings much of the time.

That quibble aside, I did enjoy the book.  However, I would not recommend it as an introduction to the Discworld series.  There is a tremendous amount of backstory, building from the last few books but also on characters like Moist and Commander Vimes of the Watch, which would probably frustrate someone new to his world.

Lord Vetinari has the last word in this book: "And all that anyone can say now is: What next?  What little thing will change the world because the little tinkers carried on tinkering?"  As always, I'll be interested to see what changes the next book will bring to the Disc.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A daughter of two families

Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Last week I read a Book Riot post with some suggestions for diversifying your book group's reading.  It will be my turn to pick a book soon, so that caught my attention.  Then too one of my book-related goals this year has been to read more diverse authors, and I'm looking for recommendations for my own reading - even more now, with the upcoming "A More Diverse Universe" challenge.

Secret Daughter was one of the books listed, and the post's author wrote, "This is a book that that I love so much it’s a bit irrational."  I am always intrigued by books that inspire that kind of passion in readers.  When I checked the library catalogue, their summary of the book also intrigued me:
Interweaves the stories of a baby girl in India, the American doctor who adopted her, and the Indian mother who gave her up in favor of a son, as two families--one in India, the other in the United States--are changed by the child that connects them.
I was particularly pleased that my branch library had a copy, so I could just walk in and pick it up off the shelf.  I love our county library system (no surprise that I scored as a "Library Lover" on the Pew Research Center's Library User Quiz, which you can take here). But most of the books I want have to come from other branches, which can take weeks sometimes, so it's nice to find one ready on the shelves.

I found the blurb intriguing, but it's also a bit misleading.  The mother in India, Kavita, doesn't give up her child in favor of a son, she does it to save the child's life. Her first-born, a daughter, was taken from her at birth.  She knows the infant was killed and buried by her husband's family, though no one has ever told her so.  If the child she is carrying is another girl, she is determined to save her.  Her sister Rupa, who faced the same heart-breaking dilemma herself, found an orphanage in Mumbai for her child, and she agrees help Kavita take the baby there.  At the Shanti Home for Children, Kavita gives her daughter a name, Usha, "Dawn," and leaves her with one of her treasures, a silver bangle.

The American woman who adopts the baby is Somer Whitman, a pediatrician  living in San Francisco.  She is married to a neurosurgeon, Krishnan Thakkar, whom she met in medical school.  Krishnan is originally from Mumbai, where his parents and extended family still live.  They have been trying to start a family for some time, but Somer cannot carry a baby to term.  Finally, at Krishnan's urging, she agrees to consider adoption.  His mother is a patron of the Shanti Home, and through an adoption agency they are offered a one-year-old child, a girl named Asha (which means "hope").  They travel to Mumbai to meet their new daughter, a trip that is also Somer's introduction to India and to Krishnan's extended family.  She finds the city overwhelming, she feels an outsider in the Thakkar family and in the Indian culture, and she is distressed not to bond as easily as Kris does with their new daughter.

The story then takes us through more than 20 years of the two families' lives.  Kavita and her husband Jasu move to Mumbai with the son they finally have, Vijay.  Like Somer, they find the city overwhelming and not especially welcoming to the new arrivals pouring in from the countryside, looking for jobs and a better life for their children.  They land first in a vast shantytown, a slum on the edge of the city where thousands live and work.  Under the most difficult circumstances, they begin to build a partnership, from an arranged marriage that got off to a rocky start, with their new city life.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Somer and Kris raise their daughter, who grows increasingly curious about her birth.  At the same time Kris realizes that his connection to his family and his homeland is slipping, while his daughter has no real connection at all to her Indian heritage. Reading their story, I initially thought that the author had glossed over the complexities of their multi-cultural marriage, let alone raising a child in that situation.  I realized later that's because Somer and Kris had done the same thing themselves.  As a student, Kris melded himself into American culture and ways.  Both he and Somer were focused on their careers, something they had in common, and they married without ever really addressing the wide gaps in their experiences and expectations.  In some ways their marriage had as shaky a foundation as Kavita and Jasu's, and adding a child doesn't automatically make that better. 

This becomes clear in the second half of the book when, Asha, now a sophomore at Brown University, wins a grant to spend a year in India, researching children living in poverty.  Somer is absolutely opposed to this, because it means losing a year of college, but also because she feels that Asha is choosing Krishnan and his family over her.  In addition, she worries that her daughter will seek out her birth parents.  Kris supports Asha, which infuriates Somer.  Under the strain, other long-buried issues begin to surface, driving the couple apart.

I really enjoyed the second half of the book, following Asha as she arrives in Mumbai and meets her father's large family, who welcome her warmly.  She bonds immediately with her grandmother, the matriarch of the family.  With her cousins, she begins to explore the city and her own identity.  Her introduction to Mumbai is much easier than Kavita's many years before, cushioned by her family and her economic security.  But her research takes her to the same shantytown, where she discovers not just the heart-breaking poverty of the residents, but also the grace and strength with which they make their homes and raise their families - as her own birth parents did.

This is a complex story, with a lot going on between the different characters.  It deals with big questions, of identity, of what it means to be a family, through individual stories.  It shifts constantly between characters, and between the U.S. and India, but the different strands of the story are easy to follow.  Ms. Gowda is a very skillful story-teller.  My only quibble is that I found the San Francisco side of the story a little less interesting, a little flatter, than the stories of Kavita and Asha in India.  The sections set in India really come to life, and it was fascinating seeing Mumbai through the eyes of the three different women: Kavita, coming from her small village; Somer, an American on her first visit to India, uneasy, closed in and resentful; and Asha, discovering her homeland for the first time.  Ms. Gowda does not gloss over the poverty and the violence that plague Mumbai and other areas of India, nor the discrimination that women and girls face.  But these problems do not define the country or her characters.

It is hard to believe that this is Shilpi Somaya Gowda's first book.  I will certainly be looking for whatever she writes next.