May 16 Reads

May just creeped up on me one fine Sunday…just when I was hoping to finish Alice McDermott’s tedious novel At Weddings and Wakes. I understand that one shouldn’t be too critical of an author but I’ll skip this step since one isn’t writing an essay thankfully.

may reads

At Weddings and Wakes is a slow paced novel that details every step of Lucy Towne’s 3 children, their observations of their mother’s interaction with her 3 Irish aunts – May, a former nun who always takes the children on walks and buys them presents; Agnes, the sophisticated and aloof aunt; Veronica, the youngest of the Towne sisters and an alcoholic. Added to this motley group is Momma, the formidable yet silent matriarch and the children’s father who often appears at the end of the visit only to pick up his wife and children. The children for their part, though bored with these often repetitive proceedings, were forced to go through the movements by their parents.

The story was so heavily inundated with whispered conversations as observed through the eyes of the 3 children. The source for the anxiety and unhappiness Lucy displayed, or for that matter, the source of the Towne women’s troubles remains a mystery as children are not supposed to understand. The characters are all given their own backdrop but it seems that they found solace in the repetitive nature of their actions . The only outsider who was let in on this heavy tableau was Lucy’s husband, portrayed as a cheerful fellow who patiently visits his in-laws and tries his best at playing a happy family.

To get over At Weddings and Wakes, I picked up Rick Riordan’s The Demigod Diaries. Written as a companion book to the Percy Jackson and the Heroes of Olympus series, the diary features an adventure each from Luke Castellan, Percy Jackson,  Jason Grace and Alabaster in their own narration. The first story serves as the premise for Luke and Thalia’s friendship with Annabeth, the second story narrates Percy and Annabeth’s quest for Hermes on their one month dating anniversary and the rest involve Jason and his girlfriend Piper. The entries include battling deadly monsters and meeting new demigods who are semi-villainous but the narration is infused with the wry humor that only the demigods can possess. It felt like reading a typical teenager’s diary on the whole and was quite refreshing.

As I prepared my TBR list based on reviews from Stuck in a book and Booksnob, I realized that I’ve never read Shirley Jackson’s books much less heard of her. So I decided that for May and June, I should probably read through as many of Jackson’s books as possible. So the book I chose for May is We Have Always Lived in a Castle. (Link to the review)

A long time friend suggested we start the read-along again, so I thought why not? It was my turn to suggest, so I picked the first book in PC Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch. Aptly titled Midnight Riot, the plot is multi-threaded and not exactly strong. (Link to the review)

Next up was Up The Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman. Wish I’d simply bought the book on kindle flash sale but I didn’t. Instead I chose to read it as part of the kindle unlimited subscription. Kaufman highlights the declining plight of the US school system and feelings of apathy or despair shown by the average students of the public school system.

Here are some quotes from the book –

“We have keys but no locks (except in lavatories), blackboards but no chalk, students but no seats, teachers but no time to teach. The library is closed to the students.”

“The books we are required to teach frequently have nothing to do with anything except the fact that they have always been taught, or that there is an oversupply of them, or that some committee or the other was asked to come up with some titles.”

Kaufman’s experiences as school teacher and her interactions with students are delightfully showcased through the letters and observations of the protagonist, a newbie teach named Sylvia Barrett. The prose is witty with sardonic humor, the characters sketched are so universal that you’d find them in any country. It reminded me of my school days where teachers tried to teach us to the best of their abilities while balancing their varied admin duties. Kaufman’s characters were all there at my school as well, in some form or the other.

Midnight Riot – Ben Aaronovitch

Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot (PC Peter Grant-1) centers around the life and adventures of Peter Grant, a young apprentice wizard and a police constable with the Met. Following his encounter with a ghost while guarding the site of a macabre homicide, Peter’s investigations land him under the tutelage of Thomas Nightingale, head of the supernatural investigations branch and London’s only wizard in residence. Added to the crime investigation is the increasing tensions due to the long time feud between the river gods.rolba

The narrative was witty and light yet became an albeit boring walking guide to the streets and rivers of London. Then there are the undertones of racial profiling as the plot progresses. The anthropomorphic river spirits and gods’ and their petty disputes forms a sub plot and rapidly overtakes the primary plot which involves chasing a revenant spirit and a vengeful ghost. This is further muddled by a brief meeting with vampires who serve as the extras in this delightful novel. And Peter’s attempts at a crash course in magic won’t mean much unless you’ve experienced the wonderful world of Harry Potter. While JK Rowling didn’t go overboard in her attempts to explain magic, her description of the outcome of a spell was enough to connect to the Latin wording. Here, Aaronovitch attempted to amalgamate science with magic, which rendered the entire concept ambiguous and took the charm out of magic.

As for monsters, they appeared to the principal cast while Nightingale seemed like an extra in an epic movie on monsters. And there are the key terms constantly referenced “Lux” and “Vestigia” which overwhelm the plot so much so that I speed read the rest of the book closing my mind off from these terms. In the end, these didn’t mean much since any normal police procedural would involve an armed detective and plenty of clues for a sharp mind to close in on.

Constant references to Harry Potter gave plenty of evidence of Aaronovitch’s source of inspiration but not maintaining the plot at an even pace made this novel flat. I know I sound critical but it gets difficult to praise a novel all the time even when you don’t like it much. I suspect that the reason for its popularity stems from a lack of Harry Potterish characters in the market and Peter Grant, while not perfect seems to cut very close.

We Have Always Lived in a Castle – Shirley Jackson

For the first Jackson book, I chose We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Published 1962). Now I know that this is her last book but this was also the book that most captured my attention.

whaliacIn We Have Always Lived in a Castle, we meet Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood, sisters who live seemingly peaceful lives in the large Blackwood Manor. The rest of the family with the exception of their father’s younger brother Julian died of arsenic poisoning one night. Julian narrowly escapes death but becomes an invalid living a painful life in the process. All the facts of the case point to Constance and it is implied through Mary Katherine or Merricat’s narration and uncle Julian’s ramblings that Constance although innocent has isolated herself from society choosing to live out her days in seclusion. She is content with Merricat running the errands. Merricat sounds like a typical teenager at first, however, you cannot help but sense that something is off about her. Her mannerisms are wild and untamed, plus she seems to constantly make up her mind to be kinder to uncle Julian. Their uneventful lives are most definitely interrupted by an unannounced visit from their estranged cousin, Charles Blackwood. His motives and indirect clashes with Merricat change their lives forever.

I couldn’t sympathise with Constance as she makes the least attempts at re-integrating into the society 6 years after her trial not to mention her attempts to protect Merricat. I was thoroughly exasperated by Merricat’s psychopathic nature and her  attempts to alienate herself and Constance from the society at large. However, the one point that never failed to surprise me was the depth of darkness and apathy displayed by the Blackwood sisters. The foreword did warn that the themes of isolation, fear and subsequent persecution reflect the anti-semitic feelings of Jackson’s own neighbors towards her and her family. But what bothered me was the manner in which Jackson chose to portray her feeling. Jackson’s penmanship is astounding, her characters were well thought out and the theme is quite disturbing. The only negative is the inadequate motive for the mass homicide, vaguely explained through Julian’s reminisces and Merricat’s musings. This made it hard to understand Constance’s reasons for protecting the identity of the murderer.