Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Red Earth and Pouring Rain – Vikram Chandra

Aprils Close Encounters “Books Without Pictures” book was Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra.

Red Earth and Pouring Rain, on its surface, is the tale of a young Indian man, Aphay, who having returned to India from America, shoots a monkey who regularly visits his parental home for food, however, a spirit is awoken within the monkey as it is nursed back to health by Aphay’s parents, it is the spirit of Sanjay Parashar a poet who has to bargain with the Gods to extend his life, his payment? To tell a story and keep Lord Yama at bay.

His story is told throughout the book, which jumps back and forth over a couple of centuries covering everything from pre-English rule Hindustan, prior to Sanjay’s birth, the key figures at that time, both real and fictional, through his birth alongside his “brothers” Sikander and Chotto through to Aphay’s time studying in America, his falling in love but ultimately in him returning home and his fateful conflict with a white monkey who had stolen his jeans from the washing line.

This is over simplifying the tale that is told within the pages of Chandra’s writings, even referring to it as a “tale” is to also over simplify things, as Red Earth and Pouring Rain is a whole bunch of tales with a wide variety of key characters and voices all told within an amalgamation of tales themselves. We are told of the Gods, of war, heroes and villains, love, death and everything in between and in the hands of a lesser author it could all have so easily have gone awry. That’s not to say that Red Earth and Pouring Rain isn’t a challenging read, it can be difficult to keep up with who is who and what has happened to each of the characters and at what point in history certain events take place. I also felt I may have had more of a grasp of things if I’d had more of an education in regards to India, its history and the religious upbringings of its people, as thing stand we’re not even taught about England’s involvement in the area (and it wasn’t until the recent episode of Doctor Who that I knew anything of the Partition of India for example) so reading this has been an eye opener really.

I’ve struggled to take much more from the it really, I’m not sure if its trying to say anything in particular, and again, I can’t help but thinking that my very white working class upbringing has played its hand there, not that that excuses my ignorance, but I’m definitely glad that Red Earth and Pouring Rain came up as otherwise I wouldn’t have known is existence, let alone read it, as its most definetly outside of the kind of book I’d normally pick up and read.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere was the Close Encounters “Books Without Pictures” book club for March-April (as in we read it in March, meet in April). The meeting was originally scheduled for April 3, but had to be re-scheduled due to illness. So, we’re were going to meet tonight, April 10th, but I’ve been unable to go for family reasons. Even so, heres some of my thoughts on Neverwhere.

I’ll start by saying that, despite being by Gaiman, Neverwhere didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I mean, I definetly enjoyed it, but I took very little away from it, certainly less so than I did Day of the Triffids. My most prevalent thoughts (and bear in mind I finished this over two weeks ago now) were that I really liked Gaimans use of locations. Knightsbridge becoming “Nights Bridge” and somewhere to fear is the main example I can think of right now. I found that whole aspect genuinely fun, likewise I enjoyed the use of abandoned places basically becoming “London Below” as there is so much of our capital that appears on those “Forgotten Cities” style shows that Gaiman populating forgotten Underground stations or the sewer system below the city made them feel alive and vivid. Admitedly, as someone who’s only really been to St Pancras, a few underground stations and then some of the touristy spots like Harrods or the Natural History Museum, some of the places I just know by their name so maybe his use of them is lost on me a little, but yeah, I found that really fun.

The other aspect that really stood out was that his female characters were pretty strong. Obviously there’s Hunter, the legendary bodyguard, but even Door is capable and her soft nature and small stature belies her strong will and moral sensibilities. She’s the one character that ever shows Richard any remorse for the situation he has been dragged into and ultimately its her own strength of character that redeems the entire situation and fools Islington.

I’d have liked to get to know the Marquis more, I know Gaiman wrote an additional short story but I’ve not had opportunity to read that, I’m not even sure if its in the edition of the book that I have (I’ve leant it to one of the other members of the book club, so will check when he’s finished with it and I see him again). Likewise I really liked Old Bailey but we didn’t get half as much time with him as I’d have liked.

For next month the group has voted on “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” by Vikram Chandra, I’ve never heard of this book nor the author before and a quick look at its synopsis makes it sound really interesting and totally different to what I’d normally read: Combining Indian myths, epic history, and the story of three college kids in search of America, a narrative includes the monkey’s story of an Indian poet and warrior and an American road novel of college students driving cross-country.


Malaterre (Part One) by Pierre-Henry Gomont


Malaterre tells the tale of Gabriel Lasaffre, a man whom I’d label as a functioning alcoholic, who at the very beginning of the book dies of a heart attack. For the rest of the tale his story is told by a friend and business partner. We’re told how Gabriel dreams of buying back the jungle estate his ancestors once owned and the interactions he has with those around him before and during this time.

Part One focuses, predominantly, on the “before” part, covering his youth, the start of his own family and his destructive rather than nurturing behaviours when handling any and all relationships. Gabriel only really looks out for Gabriel and will, seemingly, undermine his relationships with his own children to get what he wants.

The story itself is told fairly simply but its the art work that really makes everything work. At times the character work really reminds me of Quentin Blake (he who illustrated Roald Dahls works), although said characters are far more detailed than Blake’s work. There’s a real hand drawn sketching element to the artwork that adds life and a European feel to what we’re reading. Even if Gomont hadn’t explicitly told us that (at times) we were in France it would have been easy to place the characters there from the way Malaterre has been drawn. Some of the location drawings, especially of the cities and the beach are beautiful to look at and are almost characters within themselves.

What adds to this feel is the muted blocky palette that Gomont has applied to his work really helps the reader feel the tone and mood of particular sections of the story whilst the inventive use of speech bubbles, wherein we occasionally have images such as a pan of water boiling over or a fire, really help the reader understand the emotional state of the characters rather than just reading the text or having the characters spelt their feelings out to us at all times which really works to show how controlling and manipulative Gabriel can be in his interactions with others and how that makes them feel.

So far, so good then, Malaterre has been split into two parts by the publisher for its English translation (it appears to be one book for its original French release) but at just shy of 100 pages, theres a good chunk of work here to read through. I for one am looking forward to seeing how things unravel for Gabriel, his children and his ex-wife, not to mention the estate of Malaterre itself.

My copy of Malaterre (Part 1) was provided via NetGalley

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

I recently joined a book club being run at my local comic books store (Close Encounters in Bedford) and our read for February (for our meeting on 6th March) was Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. Before I continue, this is the first time I’ve read it and I’ve never seen either the recentish movie nor the BBC TV series adaptations

Written in 1951, Day of the Triffids is a War of the Worlds-esque tale of a mans survival in a post-apocalyptic world that has become over-run by the titular Triffids, an “unnatural” plant that thrives after the majority of Britains (and possibly the Worlds) population are blinded by what is believed to be a meteor shower.

The vast majority of Day of the Triffids follows Bill Masen as he learns to adapt to the world he wakes up to whilst in Hospital, unlike most of the people around him he wasn’t blinded when the meteor shower as his eyes had been bandaged after he had received a whipping poisonous sting from a Triffid whilst cultivating them and thus finds initial survival to be much easier. We meet other characters along the way, most of whom have key roles throughout but it is ultimately his search for Josella that drives much of the story until he eventually finds her and events become more diary like until the book ends in what I felt was rather abruptly.

Its due to this ending that I ultimately found Wyndhams tale to be rather frustrating, I wanted to know more about the Triffids and the meteor shower and whether the two were linked or not. I wanted to know more about the new community on the Isle of Wight that is briefly mentioned near the end of the book. I understand that thats not really what Wyndham was trying to do here, he was sticking a fairly ordinary guy into a situation that tests him but unfortunately I don’t think it really quite works, it never really feels like Masen is ever in any real danger and his functionality means any obstacle is easily solved, he takes to being a leader rather naturally and whilst his beliefs regarding the threat of the Triffids are called into question by one individual early on, his methods and opinions are never really challenged beyond that.

What is interesting though is seeing how heavily other creations have been influenced by Day of the Triffids. The one that kept coming to mind was the TV adaptation of Robert Kirkmans The Walking Dead. In both there’s the relentless threat of unthinking flesh eating masses, in both the protagonist wakes up in hospital unaware of how the world around him has changed, in both people rally around said protagonist and their leadership is faultless (well, mostly in The Walking Dead), in both a distant group has a helicopter and there are different factions that have different approaches to surviving in the modern world.

Lastly, and this for me is the most difficult point to put across, but I think Day of the Triffids is a commentary on post-war immigration in Britain. Whilst Wyndham never really points out the appearance of any of the characters (as far as I recall anyway) I always pictured them as white but that may be my own bias showing. I couldn’t help getting the impression that the Triffids were supposed to be the immigrants, especially once the theory that they were communicating with each other was established, their growing numbers would seem to fit with that constant fear that so many people unfortunately have that they’re being over run by people that aren’t their own.