The Star-Touched Queen

queenThe Star-Touched Queen
by Roshani Chokshi
342 pages
Published April, 2016

From Goodreads: Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.


I’ve seen multiple reviews of this book here and there, always rated very highly, and so I thought I’d give it a try. After a short wait from the library, the eBook showed up on my Nook one day, so off I went into a mythology I am only vaguely acquainted with. I have encountered the Hindu mythos here and there- it’s touched upon in other fantasy novels I’ve read, I’ve heard it spoken about in the various travels shows I’ve watched, and we read a section of the Mahabharata in my Epic Tales class (Classics 389) in college. So Maya’s world wasn’t utterly unfamiliar to me.

But it was still strange. Maya’s horoscope foretold  a dark future of death and destruction for her, and so the women she grew up with and around in her father’s palace treated her terribly, blaming virtually every misfortune and death on a girl who, really, had nothing to do with these things.

And yet, there was something odd about her in the way that she smiled or the fact that sometimes her shadow refused to appear when the sun was high. She would frighten her tutors away and sneak off to watch her father as he ruled his lands, content to learn about politics and perhaps someday become a scholar. One day, though, her father declares that Maya must marry, and she will do so within a few days.

The man that Maya ultimately marries is a mystery to her, and he brings her to a strange realm full of locked doors and distant voices. He treats her as an equal, with his only demand being that she must trust him.

Of course, Maya’s trust falters to her misfortune, her husband’s, and perhaps all the worlds above and below.

One of the comments I kept seeing about The Star-Touched Queen was how beautiful the commentors thought the prose was. I agree to a degree. Compared to many of the YA books I have read or tried to read over the past couple of years, the prose is more poetic. Chokshi’s metaphors didn’t sweep me off my feet, though. What kept me reading was Maya and her characterization, and later on, the mystery of the realm she became the queen of- Akaran.

That’s not to say that I didn’t have my moments of, “Maya, don’t be a dingbat… oh, there you go. Being a dingbat. Go figure”. I had several of those. Fortunately, they weren’t so aggravating that they made me want to put the book down. Amar, the king of Akaran, was mysterious enough to make me want to keep reading, if only to find out what he was all about.

From here, we get a bit spoilery, but I don’t know how to best discuss my thoughts without giving away certain plot elements, so here we go.

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  1. I realize the whole thing with Nritti was set up early on, but somehow it didn’t quite feel like Nritti’s early, unnamed appearances were part of her story. It felt like she appeared out of nowhere in Akaran.
  2. While I’m aware that reincarnation is part of Hindu beliefs and that it was mentioned in various parts of the book, given that Maya’s realization about her own past lives and how they intertwined with Nritti’s, the occasional mentionings of this idea didn’t meld enough into the story to make Maya’s discovery of her past lives feel completely natural.
  3. I know this is a fantasy, and it is based on various Hindu myths and beliefs, but the section where Maya is going through the kingdom as a sadhvi felt a little like it came from a different book altogether- one that was more of a surrealistic or magical realist story.
  4. I’m not sure how the reunification with her sister Gauri was necessary to the overall, and why Maya was helping her to escape. Her conversation with the old harem-wife felt more relevant to Maya’s journey.

Overall, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read with interesting characters and locations, but I don’t think it will leave a very deep impression when I look back at the list of books I read this year. There is a second book that just came out, A Crown of Wishes, but the synopsis indicates that it’s about Gauri, not Maya. I’m still trying to decide if I’m interested enough to read that one.

The Red Magician

23117749The Red Magician
by Lisa Goldstein
192 pages
Published in 1982

From Goodreads: Winner of the 1983 American Book Award, The Red Magician was an immediate classic.

On the eve of World War II, a wandering magician comes to a small Hungarian village prophesying death and destruction. Eleven-year-old Kicsi believes Vörös, and attempts to aid him in protecting the village.

But the local rabbi, who possesses magical powers, insists that the village is safe, and frustrates Vörös’s attempts to transport them all to safety. Then the Nazis come and the world changes.

Miraculously, Kicsi survives the horrors of the concentration camp and returns to her village to witness the final climactic battle between the rabbi and the Red Magician, the Old World and the New.

The Red Magician is a notable work of Holocaust literature and a distinguished work of fiction, as well as a marvelously entertaining fantasy that is, in the end, wise and transcendent.


I found this book by browsing through my library’s eBook selection during a bit of downtime at work, and I have to admit that the little ‘National Book Award’ medallion on the cover image helped sway my decision to download and read it. The library’s synopsis was interesting, but only described the first few chapters. The Goodreads synopsis better describes the whole story, though it just touches the surface. The Red Magician is much deeper than its synopsis indicates. There’s a good reason it won such a prestigious award.

Life is perfectly normal for Kicsi when the book opens. She goes to school, she puts up with her older sisters, she resents the fact that she never gets to have new clothes (she gets hand me downs from her sisters), and she dreams of the wide world outside her little village. Things start to turn strange, though, when the local rabbi lays a curse on the school because they’ve started teaching Hebrew, a language the rabbi feels is blasphemous.

That’s when Vörös shows up. He is a wanderer who Kicsi immediately likes, and it turns out that he is a magician, just like the rabbi. Vörös removes the curse from the school, and at the rabbi’s daughter’s wedding, making a dire prophecy about the future and advises everyone to leave. When they don’t leave, Vörös tries to build protections for the little town he’s come to love. The rabbi shows up then, and whether out of spite, fear, or a little of both, he destroys the protections that Vörös has built.

Then the Nazis show up.

I won’t go further into the plot, because that would spoil it, and there are a lot of things I’ve left out. But suffice it to say that Kicsi survives the Holocaust and finds Vörös again, and the rabbi finds them, too.

I wouldn’t say that The Red Magician is a coming of age story, thought Kicsi certainly grows up. That label doesn’t tell the whole story of the story, though. The Red Magician is about growing up, learning to appreciate what you have, learning to live with guilt- and indeed, it’s about learning to live again after surviving horrors- and so many other things, too. There is a lot packed into this little book.

The prose is lovely, too. It had a ‘once upon a time…’ feeling to it, like a Brothers Grimm tale, where deep issues are written about so lightly you don’t realize you’ve absorbed the story’s lesson until you look back at it later. Goldstein isn’t a spendthrift when it comes to her words. They are chosen carefully and seem to effortlessly spin a beautiful tale about love, loss, and why we should choose to live after witnessing the worst humanity has to offer.

May Summary and June Preview

And like that, May was over. It was full of rain, work, and sadly, not enough reading. I finished a whole six books this month. I’m hoping to have a better record in June.

Now, to be clear, I read nearly four hundred pages of Sharon Kay Penman’s Falls the Shadow before giving up on it, and the first chapter of Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos before realizing that he was explaining concepts I was already familiar with, so page count-wise, I’m not that far behind April’s total. I just didn’t finish as many total books. So it goes.

Anywho. The six books I finished:

I enjoyed the first three immensely, while the other three were a little… eh. They were quick reads, in any case, and I don’t regret reading them.

This past Memorial Weekend saw my plans change from one day to the next, and so I was doing a lot of driving, and not nearly as much reading as I had hoped to do. Still, I got a little done before our hiking trip, which was on a beautiful day and full of beautiful views like this:
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Thanks to a lot of rain in the past few weeks, the trails at the park were starting to wash out, so while they are not technically difficult, the footing was a bit treacherous from time to time. Fortunately, there were few bugs and the temperature was perfect for being outside. I’ll have to remember this day once the summer heat comes along to melt us all like popsicles.

I’ve had this song in my head off and on again for the last couple of weeks:

 

Over the next couple of days, I’m hoping to finish up a couple of the books I’m currently reading- Conn Iggulden’s Margaret of Anjou, and Lisa Goldstein’s The Red Magician. I’m just over halfway through The Red Magician (it’s not terribly long) and I have less than 100 pages left in Margaret of Anjou, so provided I don’t get too distracted, I should be able to finish them both by week’s end.  I’m less than halfway through Margaret Campbell Barnes’s Brief Gaudy Hour. I’m enjoying it quite a lot, though, so it shouldn’t take too long to finish it.

As usual, I’ve picked five books I plan to read in June. My record with May’s ‘Top Five To Read” was pretty dreadful, as I only finished one of them (The Return of the King), and did not finish two others (Falls the Shadow, The Fabric of the Cosmos).

June’s Picks:
1. Bloodline – Conn Iggulden
2. Ravenspur – Conn Iggulden
3. Istanbul – Orhan Parmuk
4. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
5. The Black Company – Glen Cook

Bloodline and Ravenspur are the last two books in Iggulden’s The Wars of the Roses serieswhile Istanbul was one of my May picks that I’m still super interested in. I’m going to re-read Pride and Prejudice because I adore it and I haven’t read it for a whileand The Black Company has been staring at me from its spot on the bookshelf for a while now. There’s apparently going to be a television show based on it, and as a few of my friends are super excited about it, I feel like I should get a handle on what it’s all about so I have some idea of what they’re talking about.

And speaking of television shows….  I’m still loving American Gods, but haven’t watched any of the new Twin Peaks episodes yet. Given how that wonderfully weird show was a foundation for much of my pop cultural leanings, I really should get caught up on them. Also, Game of Thrones will be back soon!

But the show I’m most looking forward to this fall?

This one:

 

Falls the Shadow

falls the shadow coverFalls the Shadow
Sharon Kay Penman
580 pages

From Goodreads: This is Simon de Montfort’s story—and the story of King Henry III, as weak and changeable as Montfort was brash and unbending. It is a saga of two opposing wills that would later clash in a storm of violence and betrayal, a story straight from the pages of history that brings the world of the thirteenth century completely, provocatively, and magnificently alive. Above all, this is a story of conflict and treachery, of human frailty and broken legends, a tale of pageantry and grandeur that is as unforgettable as it is real….

 


I was honestly excited to start this book. As I am an incurable Anglophile and history nut, historical fiction appeals to me at pretty much every level, and as I’ve heard nothing but good things about Sharon Kay Penman’s writing, I thought this would be a match made in book heaven.

It started out that way, with beautifully written character studies and the historical facts laid out clearly, without resorting to one person reciting facts to another (that the second person should have already known to begin with, making said person look entirely stupid. I’m looking at you, Philippa Gregory). The first half of the story progressed at a good pace, where historical facts and figures were explained in a clear fashion that didn’t leave me confused as to who did what and, even better, in an age where everyone seemed to have the same name, Penman gives them all nicknames based on their actual names so I wasn’t left wondering, ‘which of the five Eleanors are we talking about now?’.

So it was a great start and I raced through the first half. The problems started about halfway through. Because about twenty years had passed in the story, the orignal characters’ children became players in their own right and greatly increased the book’s cast, leaving less and less space for each one to assert his/her own point of view, as Penman switches from perspective to perspective, finding it necessary to cover virtually everyone at one point or another, pointing out their strengths or flaws and what they felt about siblings or spouses. This was, sadly, often to the detriment of the plot.

The story is based on real events, and I know that there was a lot going on during the thirteenth century, and that fans of historical fiction set in England will likely know what was going on, but the fact that Penman often glosses over major events is extremely annoying to me. For example, there is one point where Simon de Montfort spends a lot of time arranging a delicate and clever political maneuver, which Penman discusses in detail, only to undo it all in the course of a couple of sentences when another character arranges to have those knights meet with the king in another town altogether, forcing them into an awkward choice which, unable to choose between the factions, meant they all just stayed home. That’s how much effort was put into undoing a delicate plot point that Penman herself had spent many, many words putting together.

Ultimately, reading Falls the Shadow started to feel like I was watching a video that keeps skipping. You’re watching along, then it buffers and skips, and then proceeds to do so every ten seconds so that, while you can get a sense of the story, it feels disjointed and jars the senses.

I read 400 out of the 580 pages, but ultimately decided that the narrative was too scattered, and that I had lost too much interest to put up with it for the last 180 pages. I will certainly give Penman another try, but Falls the Shadow goes to the Did Not Finish list.

Sunday Sum-Up

I want my temporal vortex back. Where was it during all those extra hours I worked this week? Those were some long hours dealing with fussy people, an unexpected bill, headaches, and not enough sleep.

DSC09917
Part of Friday’s To Do list in my bullet journal

Fortunately for my sanity, there were some lulls in my busy days that allowed me to dive into a couple of books. I finished up The Return of the King and started reading both Sharon Kay Penman’s Falls the Shadow and Conn Iggulden’s The Gates of Rome. 

Falls the Shadow is set in Britain during the reign of Henry III and tells the story of such people as Simon de Montfort and Llewellyn ap Gruffudd. The book begins a bit slowly, with a lot of character development and setting, but the pace speeds up as you get into it and deals with larger events and touches on the deaths of prominent historical figures. It’s almost as though Penman is running through the mid thirteenth century so she can make it from the 1230s to the Second Barons’ War of 1263-4. I haven’t gotten that far yet so I don’t know if that’s the goal, but we’ll certainly get there at the current pace.

The Gates of Rome is the first of a five-part series about Gaius Julius Caesar, and opens when Gaius is an eight year old who, along his his friend Marcus, keeps getting beaten up by the fourteen year-old neighbor boy, and then the story continues on into their earliest military training as the boys reach their teenage years. So far, it’s wonderfully written and would be captivating even if it wasn’t about a fascinating historical figure.

Both Falls the Shadow and The Gates of Rome, having shifting points of view, but unlike The Forever Queen, those shifts are not so bothersome, and do not interrupt the flow of the narrative.

I was too busy to stop by any bookshops, so no new acquisitions this week. I have one more long day tomorrow, and then things should quiet down a bit. I hope they will, anyway. Last week was long enough!

Sunday Sum-Up

There really is a temporal vortex in my closet. It was just Sunday. How is it Sunday again?

This wasn’t a busy week work-wise, but I didn’t get as much accomplished as I’d hoped, due to spending my day off dealing with exterminators, getting my cat out of the apartment while they were spraying my apartment, doing a lot of driving around in heavy rain, and getting new lenses for my glasses. I didn’t have nearly enough downtime that day. The rest of the week? I was working on a couple of personal projects that ate up my normal reading time.

That said, I downloaded Leigh Bardugo’s Crooked Kingdom from the library to my phone, so I had something to read in the little snippets of time I found. Granted, I did sit down and read the last quarter of it on  Friday night while ignoring everything else I needed to do, if only because I had to find out what happened.

I’m still working on The Return of the King and The Blue Sky. Because I have plenty of time today (for once!), I’ll probably sit down with a big cup of tea and the Tolkien and get on with the business of reading. I think The Blue Sky is a book I’ll have to chip away at over the next weeks.

Ricky Whittle American GodsAlso… American Gods! Wow! I sat down to watch the first episode, and did NOTHING else while watching. It’s my Midwestern protestant upbringing, I think, that prompts me to be doing something productive while watching television, but there are times where a show is so compelling that I just… don’t. I almost wish that I could un-read the book, American Gods, so I didn’t know what was going on and so the mystery would be fresh. On the other hand, I do like catching all the details around characters like Mr. Wednesday and Shadow. The show doesn’t try to explain those mysteries, either. It just lets them be so the viewer will have to unravel them over the course of the season.

So that was my not-particularly-productive-from-a-reading-standpoint week. I’m going to try to read more this week, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s already promising to be a little crazy.

April Summary and May Preview

April was full of ups and downs, with stressful weeks and a few relaxing days thrown in for good measure.  Warm weather, then cold again, with a lot of reading getting done. I’ve been doing more street photography since I bought my new camera, and so I’ve been spending more time in coffee shops. This demands patience as you wait for for something interesting to happen, so I bring a book along and hope I’ve sat down in the right place. Usually, I’ll see something that catches my interest, no matter where I go.

I finished fourteen books in April, though I started the first three in March or earlier:

  1. Locke and Key, Vol. 2: Head Games– Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
  2. The Year of Living Danishly– Helen Russell
  3. Rejected Princesses– Jason Porath
  4. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck– Mark Manson
  5. Walking the Nile– Levison Wood
  6. The Remains of the Day– Kazuo Ishiguro
  7. Stories of Your Life and Others– Ted Chiang
  8. Trollhunters– Guillermo del Toro
  9. The Snow Leopard– Peter Matthiessen
  10. The Club Dumas– Arturo Pérez-Reverte
  11. I’m a Stranger Here Myself– Bill Bryson
  12. 10% Happier– Dan Harris
  13. The War of Art– Steven Pressfield
  14. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye– A.S. Byatt

I’m currently reading The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag and The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.

7717338I started The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick, but it is going to the “Did Not Finish” category. The story is about Queen Emma of England who came from Normandy to marry King Æthelred in 1002. It is a tumultuous time and Æthelred is not the best of kings, so Emma must step up and do her part to save England. If Hollick had stuck to Emma’s point of view, I probably would have stuck with the book. The prose is passable, but Hollick keeps switching from one character’s point of view to another, sometimes for only a paragraph or two, and usually without pointing out which character the reader is with. She also has a tendency to go into the back story of the characters whose POV we’ve suddenly jumped into, whether or not that back story is necessary. Hollick also hasn’t figured out how to deal with the issues of the different languages that the characters speak. For example, Æthelred will be talking to Emma, and you’ll get the entirety of what he’s said, but then Hollick will half-heartedly point out that, because Emma doesn’t speak English, she only understood a word or two.  The Forever Queen comes in at 635 pages and was a bestseller when it came out, so a lot of people like it. But I am not one of them.

Coraline_posterI’ve been enjoying several of Netflix’s new, streaming animated offerings. I saw Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name when it came out in the theaters, but hadn’t watched it since. It’s streaming again, so I put it on the other night and enjoyed it just as much as the first time around. I also watched the collection of Disney’s animated short films that’s streaming. It included “Paper Man”, “The Little Matchstick Girl”, “The Ballad of Nessie”, the super cute “Feast” which is from the point of view of a dog, and two shorts based on  Tangled and Frozen, among others. I missed seeing Kubo and the Two Strings when it came out last year, but it’s streaming now and on my list to watch soon. 

 

My May To Read List:

  1. The Stone Raft– José Saramago
  2. The Fabric of the Cosmos– Brian Greene
  3. Little Black Book of Stories- A.S. Byatt
  4. Falls the Shadow– Sharon Kay Penman
  5. Istanbul: Memories and the City– Orhan Parmuk

Back in January, I thought I’d make a lot of reading selections based on Pop Sugar’s 2017 Reading Challenge. That has not been the case, and I keep forgetting that I have the whole list written out in the front of this year’s bullet journal. Oh well. I’m still reading a lot.