On the bookshelf: June round-up

May was another crazy busy month, started a new (old?) job and went to the UK and other places. Didn’t get all that much read sadly…. 

More books! (shutterhacks via Flickr)

More books! (shutterhacks via Flickr)

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I am quite the fan of folklore and anything mythological. I also love the work of Terry Pratchett. So when I found The Folklore of Discworld by Jacqueline Simpson and Terry Pratchett in an Oxfam store in Cardiff, I was delighted.

The book is perfect for a Discworld and folklore nerd like myself. Simpson has a easy-to-read, sardonic style of writing which matches quite well with Pratchett’s own style. The extensive quotes might annoy some, but the balance between our world and that of the Disc was perfect. Irish people might also appreciate the extensive praise given to the wise woman Biddy Early, Granny Weatherwax’s soul sister (apart from her four husbands, which is far more Nanny Ogg’s style). A light, quick read, perfect for a short plane journey.

A quick read is something I could not, in all conscience, call Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. This book took up most of my May and I finished it under duress, because I pretty sick of it hanging around. While, admittedly, this sounds like a bad review, it’s not all bad.

Ghosh invokes a picture of colonial India, with its rigidly structured society, poverty and riches, with an artist’s eye. The story follows a huge cast of characters; young mother Deeti, whose life is made miserable by a opium-addled husband and a predatory brother-in-law; Zachary Reid, a freed mix-race American who finds himself in charge of a ship; Neel, a disgraced raja; Serang Ali, a rascal sailor; Paulette, a proto-feminist French girl, to name but a few.

To give you the full run-down would take paragraphs. In a nutshell, this rag-tag band of lascars, criminals, runaways, sepoys and colonists all end up the Ibis, a former slave ship, now engaged in transporting opium and workers to the island of Mauritius.

The Opium Wars between Britain and China are in the offing, but sadly this is never really evoked for me. There’s a rather artificial conversation at a dinner party between some of the British and Zachary; shoehorning the reasons for the war into paragraph long sentences of dialogue.

Chocolate break! (Kirti Poddar)

Chocolate break! (Kirti Poddar)

Generally, the dialogue sparkles with a mixture of Bengali, English, Mandarin and God-knows-what else, so to say this is disappointing is an understatement. Each character generally has his or her own voice, which is a real highlight of the book; the Burnhams, with their mixture of English public schoolboy slang and Indian words; Paulette, forever slipping into French; Serang Ali with his phonetic Asian English; and best of all, the deeply odd Baboo Nob Kissin, who talks like a spam email and has an unhealthy interest in other people’s bowel movements.

There are comedic moments; usually of misunderstanding between the various dialects. The other problem of course, is the vast cast of characters. Ghosh seems to think we need to know everyone’s back story; during a three or four page exploration of Neel’s cellmate’s childhood in China, I nearly gave up altogether.

The successes of the novel is the vibrant painting of 19th century India, a world far removed from most of us. However, my real problem with the book is the fact that it takes so bloody long to get on the ship. Once the story moved on board (in the middle third) it began to gain momentum. Unfortunately, a rather toothless ending, involving major characters being saved in the nick of time, also weakens the book. Sea of Poppies is the first in a triology, but I honestly don’t think I have the patience for the rest.

My final book this month was another quick read. The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris is the sequel to Chocolat, which, of course, was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp. Vianne Rocher and her daughters Anouk and Rosette are now living in Paris under new names. Vianne has cast herself as dull, hardworking widow. She runs a dusty little chocolaterie with hardly any customers, and is engaged to the dull yet rambunctious Thierry. (I kept picturing Gerard Depardieu whenever Thierry appeared). Of course, we know better. Vianne’s a witch of sorts, specialising in chocolate. In blows Zozie de l’Alba, another witch. But Zozie is a wicked witch and she wants Vianne’s life.

Anouk, who is unhappy in school, is quickly seduced by Zozie’s charm. Only Roux, Vianne’s old flame, and Anouk’s new friend Jean-Loup (what a name- John Wolf) see Zozie for what she really is: evil.

It’s interesting that the only things most people remember of the Aztecs is their fondness for human sacrifice and chocolate. Harris draws wonderful imagery from this; Zozie is English originally, but her defining memory was a trip to Mexico as a child, where she embraced the modern phenomenon of Dia de Meurtos, La Catrina and Santa Muerte.

One of the strengths of the book is the narration by Zozie, a fascinating and amoral character, in thrall to death and power. She’s someone who’s committed some very dark deeds indeed. Anouk and Vianne also narrate, and while there are occasional missteps when Anouk is charge, Harris generally captures the teenage voice well. However, Vianne has lost lots of her pizzazz. Something that also bothered me from the first book was her constant concern about what other people think. I hardly think single parents or people with an interest in the occult are unusual in modern-day Paris, and Vianne’s constant downplaying of herself is grating.

But Vianne herself must surmount this concern to defeat Zozie. The book doesn’t match the magic of Chocolat, but it is a engaging and unputdownable tale of subtle manipulation and danger.

Til next month, where hopefully I’ll have read more! 

 

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