I saw China Miéville give a talk at the Southbank last year. I wasn’t actually meant to go and see him, it was just on a whim, and because I hadn’t read any of his novels, I bought a ticket because I was fascinated by his name. But he really surprised and charmed me and I grabbed his latest book and got it signed. Of course, being a book junkie, it took me over a year to finally read it and in the meantime, The City & The City has been nominated for many awards and won the Arthur C Clarke, British Science Fiction Association and Hugo awards. And it thoroughly deserves it. I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel like it.

Miéville said this was different from his previous novels; it’s a murder mystery and police procedural but with a big difference. I loved everything about it especially the concept of two completely different cities occupying one geographical space where the act of ‘unseeing’ citizens of both cities are taught from birth so as to go about daily life without ‘breaching’ and accidentally stepping into, seeing or confusing the space. It’s genius.

My expectations were pretty high from all the reviews I had been reading but I have to say the novel exceeded it. It’s clever, complicated and what I like most was that Miéville makes you do all the work to figure it all out. He doesn’t spell it out for you or draw a map (although I’d love to see a map of Besźel and Ul Qoma).

The story begins with the discovery of a young woman’s corpse in an empty skating park in Besźel. Inspector Tyador Borlú is called in to take over the case. But things are not as they seem because they can find no trace of the woman. In a strictly controlled and monitored society, this can only mean one thing: she doesn’t belong in Besźel and is from Ul Qoma. Borlú is desperate to hand the case over to the ‘Breach’, the shadowy organisation that deals with any breach between the cities but events conspire against that and Borlú finds himself going to Ul Qoma to track the murderer.

What makes this even more complicated is that the woman is an archeology PhD student who had caused a stink several years back by bringing up the existence of Orciny, the third mythic city which everyone denies exists. With fringe nationalists trying to keep Besźel and Ul Qoma separate and others trying to merge the two cities, Borlú with Dhatt, his Ul Qoma counterpart, must negotiate the intricate laws of the two cities and unravel the mystery of the student’s death.

It’s a difficult book to describe because there is so much packed into just over 300 pages. In The City & The City, Miéville has created a complete microcosm of a world similar to but more fantastical than Berlin when it was still divided. I loved the complexity of the two cities, the sparse prose of the detective story and the power of myth and ideology over the people who occupy that space. Very interesting and different and makes you think about whether you’re really seeing what is there. And after I finished the book I am still thinking about this wonderful world Miéville has created and feel that there are still more secrets that I would like to unearth.

Miéville stated he was greatly inspired by M. John Harrisson’s Viriconium so I’ll have to check it out as it’s one of the fantasy greats. And I definitely want to read more from Miéville. Impressive stuff.

An essay about Mieville can be found here.

I read this as part of the TBR 2010 Challenge. Yay, another one down from my TBR pile. Feels great!

I think I’ve been very lucky in my reading choices this year. And it keeps getting better. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery has been on my wishlist for a long time until my happening sister got it before me. Lucky for me, she’s the sharing sort, so I finally brought it home where it sat on my shelf for months. And you know what, I wish I’d reached out sooner for this book because it’s probably my favourite book of the year so far. I loved everything about it. The subversive humour, the gentle warmth, the spiky asides. Everything. Even the ending, which broke my heart a little but which brought home the message that I think Barbery was trying to make in a gently meandering way throughout the book.

I loved the main character Renée Michel, the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment block on the Left Bank. I also particularly loved Paloma Josse, the lonely, precocious and cynical 12 year old set apart from her peers by her acute intelligence and who is contemplating suicide. And most of all, I loved Kakuro Ozu, the gentle Japanese businessman who moves into the apartment block and is the catalyst that brings about the changes that everyone desperately longs for. It was a pleasant surprise for me to find a Japanese connection in this novel as all I knew about it was the concierge who hid behind a mask of ignorance and the clever child who both share a love of the philosophical.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was smart, funny and made you see the foibles and petty prejudices of the middle classes, and the difficulty in which people who don’t share the same views find themselves. Not that Barbery is saying that being different is good or that following the crowd is mindless and stupid. It’s not as simple as that, of course, and Barbery should know since she’s a philosophy prof and spends her career thinking about these sorts of things.

For example, take Renée’s musings on being a concierge:

Similarly it has been decreed that concierges watch television interminably while their rather large cats doze, and that the entrance to the building must smell of pot-au-feu, cabbage soup or a country-style cassoulet. I have the extraordinary good fortune to be the concierge of a very high-class sort of building. It was so humiliating for me to have to cook such loathsome dishes that when Monsieur de Broglie – the State Councillor on the first floor – intervened (an intervention he described to his wife as being ‘courteous but firm’, whose only intention was to rid our communal habitat of such plebeian effluvia), it came as an immense relief, one I concealed as best I could beneath an expression of reluctant compliance. (p.16)


And regarding one of Paloma’s pet peeves:

My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raging fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She’s vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue. It would seem that children believe for a fairly long time that anything that moves has a soul and is endowed with intention. My mother is no longer a child but she apparently has not managed to conceive that Constitution and Parliament possess no more understanding than the vacuum cleaner. (p.47)

I love her. And don’t you love the cats’ names? Hysterical.

Barbery’s tale is peopled with characters who go to great lengths to hide who they really are behind a facade created to placate others into believing that everything is in their rightful place and the social etiquette is observed. However, there is always the danger of exposure which underpins their daily routine. It seems as though Barbery’s characters feel that being alone may be the answer, but when they meet someone who sees them for who they are, something changes.

Some may find this book pretentious, but I found it warm, kind and hysterically funny. It is, after all, a book about friendship. So before I gush too much, I urge you to try this. I, on the other hand, am going back to try Barbery’s first offering, The Gourmet which features one of the other residents in Renée’s apartment block and is also published by Gallic Books. Or I may just go back and read this book again. Wonderful!

I read this for Paris in July and also for the TBR 2010 Challenge. Yay, progress.

I picked up The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson last year partly because of the hype and partly because it had the word tattoo in it (there’s something about tattoo’s I find hard to resist) expecting it to be a good, solid thriller in the vein of Tana French or Ian Rankin, both whose novels I really enjoy. But I didn’t expect to find a crime novel that opened up a world that was familiar yet so foreign to me as I haven’t really read much Scandinavian fiction. I really enjoyed the fast-paced plot, the chase, the politics and the world of journalism that Larsson discusses in depth and, most of all, the character of Lisbeth Salander. Don’t get me wrong, there were parts that I found extremely disturbing, not particularly surprising when you know the original title in Swedish is Men Who Hate Women. Larsson isn’t afraid of showing the dark underbelly of Swedish society, something we don’t hear much about in the UK. But the book kept me hooked and I couldn’t wait to start its sequel as soon as I finished it. So why did it take me so long to read The Girl Who Played With Fire? Beats me.

The sequel is as strong as the first volume in the Millennium Trilogy and we find out a little more about Salander’s history and background. I have to admit I guessed most of what was revealed, but the pace of the plot kept me reading and I really didn’t know how it was all going to turn out. We meet some new characters as well as some old friends and enemies. And I probably don’t need to tell you that the subject matter is once again gritty and disturbing as both Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist who runs the investigative journal Millennium, and Salander are plunged into the murky world of European sex trafficking.

One of the things I liked about Larsson’s novels is the lack of excessive sentimentality exhibited by the characters. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t care for each other. In fact, Salander seems to become more whole as her past is stripped away, although it is impossible for her to be fully healed. She will always be a loner, misunderstood and targeted. However, she’s not without friends who are determined to save her.

Overall Larsson’s sequel once again gripped my imagination and attention. My only quibble would be that the dialogue could have been tightened with a bit more editing. The translation from the Swedish by Reg Keeland is smooth and natural and didn’t interrupt the reading experience. Needless to say I’ll be looking forward to reading the final volume, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest, and watching the second and third films when they are released next year.

I read this as part of the TBR 2010 Challenge and the Thriller and Suspense Challenge 2010.

OK, so we’re halfway through the year and the question is, am I halfway through all of my challenges? Let’s see, I’ve put my name down for a lot of challenges this year and at one point I thought my brain was going to spontaneously combust. However, on noting down what I’ve read, it seems I’m on track. Sort of.

Suspense and Thriller 2010 Challenge: 6/12
Flashback Challenge: 1/3
Terry Pratchett 2010 Challenge: 1/5 – I missed seeing Going Postal so will wait for the DVD
South Asia Authors Challenge: 6/5 – but I’m planning to read more
TBR Challenge: 1/12 – not very impressive
Women Unbound Challenge: 4/5
Once Upon A Time IV Challenge: 1/1
1930s Reading Challenge: 0/1

Not as bad as I thought, although my TBR pile needs some serious seeing to.

I’ve also decided that I will allow myself to buy one book with every three books I read from my TBR pile (unless I really need to, of course!) Just to keep the ball rolling.

Anyway, to end on a cheerful note, I received the following in the post:

The Killer of Pilgrims by Susanna Gregory – from the lovely people at Little Brown. Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael are two of my favourite medieval sleuths.

24 Hours Paris by Marsha Moore – which I won from Me and My Big Mouth. My whole family loves Paris and it’s got some great ideas about what to do there hour by hour.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley – from the lovely people at Orion Books. I have belatedly discovered the delightful Flavia de Luce in the first volume The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and can’t wait to tuck into this one.

And I found this at my library:

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde – I need a bit of Fforde fiction to tide me over until proper summer is here. I mean it, proper summer. You’re on your way, aren’t you??

I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I want to read for the Original TBR 2010 Challenge hosted by MizB and I’ve come up with the following, in no particular order:

1) A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas by Virgina Woolf
2) Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
3) Nation by Terry Pratchett
4) The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
5) Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
6) Mosquito by Roma Tearne
7) The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
8 ) The Affair of the Bloodstained Tea Cosy by James Anderson
9) The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
10) Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke
11) The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
12) Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

My alternative list, if I change my mind is:

1) The City and the City by China Mieville
2) The Cairo Diary by Maxim Chattam
3) Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
4) Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
5) The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
6) The Waves by Virginia Woolf
7) The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams
8 ) A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 by Nicola Beauman
9) Life Class by Pat Barker
10) The Fairy Gunmother by Daniel Pennac
11) The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin
12) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

2010 Challenges

5 December, 2009

Seems to be the season for announcing challenges. I don’t know what it is about reading challenges but I think I’m drawn to them like a moth to a flame because they put a structural emphasis to my reading and gives it a pattern and some sort of rationale. Instead of reading random books and quickly forgetting about them as soon as I switch genre, they make me think about the plot, character and histories within each book and allows me to connect them with other books, the bigger picture and my life. I quite like that, it makes me feel as though I am part of something fluid yet tangible.

I have seen many mouthwatering challenges popping up all over the blogging world and have finally succumbed to several. I was going to write separate posts for each, but I’m already getting confused myself and have decided to put it all under one roof.

The South Asian Author Challenge
January 1st – December 31st 2010

Here is a challenge I cannot possibly ignore. The South Asian Author Challenge is hosted by the lovely Swapna of S. Krishna’s Books who also hosted the Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge. Busy lady!

The rules are a little tricky so I’ll need to choose my books carefully:

There are two requirements for a book to qualify for the South Asian Author Challenge, both of which must be met:

1) The author must be of South Asian descent. It doesn’t matter if they’re third or fourth generation, or are only half South Asian – I’m pretty flexible on this issue.

2) The book must be about South Asia in some way. It doesn’t have to be set in South Asia, as long as it’s about the culture or history in some way. On the other hand, it can be set in South Asia and not be about South Asians.

I think I will attempt 5 books in this challenge, maybe more depending on what I find on my up-coming trip to Sri Lanka. Some of the books will be from my list in preparation for the Galle Literary Festival 2010 posted here to which I also want to add Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children which I found the other day on my TBR shelf and Story Wallah a collection of short stories by South Asian writers edited by Shyam Selvadurai.

The Flashback Challenge
January 1st – December 31st 2010

Seems like I’m addicted to challenges. I keep finding more and more that I want to join especially if it fits in with what I’ve been planning to or have been thinking about reading for a while. The Flashback Challenge is hosted by Aarti at Booklust and Kristen M at We Be Reading. Aarti is also one of the hosts of the Women Unbound: A Book Challenge together with Care of Care’s Online Book Club and Eva of A Striped Armchair. It’s a longish challenge so that gives me time to try and clear my TBR shelf and complete my other challenges.

The Flashback Challenge is exciting because now I get to reread my favourite book of all time. Yes, it’s the beautiful The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I don’t think I’ve looked at it since I first finished it in the summer of 1993 when I was revising for my first year finals. I think I’ve been a little scared to revisit what was a sensational reading experience, just in case I don’t like it so much. But you know, I like rereading books, and I normally do so when I’m back at home on holiday. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Anne of Green Gables, The Witching Hour and all of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels plus all the manga I have at home including Asterix.

I will also be giving Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself another shot. I read this a few years back and didn’t really feel the love (he is one of the brightest stars of fantasy together with my favourite Scott Lynch), so I want to see whether it will be better second time around.

I will be opting for the Bookworm level which means I will be rereading upto three books. I think that’s doable.

My final book will probably be a Terry Pratchett which takes me neatly to…

The Terry Pratchett 2010 Challenge
December 1st 2009 – November 30th 2010

See, another challenge I cannot bypass. I seem to be addicted to reading challenges and I’m also addicted to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. So this is like a dream come true. Reading Adventures is hosting the Terry Pratchett 2010 Challenge. I’ve read most of Terry Pratchett’s books except for his latest two, Nation and Unseen Academicals and his childrens books which form The Bromeliad. So I think I’ll be tackling those first before doing some rereads. I generally tend to reread Terry Pratchett’s books as part of my comfort reading package: bath, book and cake.

I will be participating as a Guard of the City Watch (my favourite group of characters together with the assassins of the Assassins’ Guild and the wizards of Unseen University) which means I will be reading/watching tv adaptations of 4-5 books.


The Thriller and Suspense Challenge
January 1st – December 31st 2010

I found the following two challenges on Melody’s Reading Corner and will be joining them because 1) my favourite genre is mystery and 2) I am determined to decrease my TBR pile next year.

The Thriller and Suspense Challenge is hosted by Book Chick City. The challenge is to read 12 mysteries in 2010 and the books can crossover into other challenges. This is great as I probably read more mysteries than any other genre. I’ll be posting about some of the prospective titles a little later.


The Original TBR Challenge
January 1st – December 31st 2010

After completing the Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge, I feel more optimistic about doing this. It was fantastic to go through my TBR shelf and slowly start reading some of the books that have been sitting there for over a year. All the books I have are books that I actually want to read. It’s just that I want to read everything so reining in my enthusiasm when confronted with the library and bookshops is really tough. And since I’ve started reading book blogs, it’s even tougher. There are just so many intriguing books out there.

Instead of the TBR ‘Lite’ Challenge, I think I will try the Original TBR Challenge for 2010, both hosted by MizB’s Reading Challenges. The Original TBR Challenge is a bit more hardcore: you have to make a list of 12 books to read from your TBR pile to read in 2010 and you cannot change that list after January 1st. However, you can make an alternative list of 12 books from which you can substitute books. So not bad. I’ll just have to have a long hard think about which books to read so that I can read a book for several challenges at once (since I’m doing so many challenges I have a feeling I will end up very dazed and confused). I’ll be posting my list up soon once I have a quick scrutiny of my TBR pile and see what treasures I can find.

*You can find my list here.