Friday, 20 April 2018

Girl Zero - A.A.Dhand

Desi voice, angrezi style

Thrillers are a big favourite and I have enjoyed quite a few, often re-reading them to relive the experience. I love the genre for its character analysis and how the situations justify their actions and behaviour. I always found more psychology in fiction than textbooks and this book reminds me of why I love the genre so much.

I heard about this book at a workshop which was part of the Asian Writers 10th anniversary celebrations. The author Dhand was part of a panel talking about crime writing as a genre and shared his frustration for writing such a different story. He spoke of his struggles in refusing to typecast himself into a particular mould to appeal to the commercial forces.

Reading the book, I felt it was a brave attempt from this. debut author. Although I am not a big fan of "this kind" of crime thrillers (read lots of violence), I could relate to this one, because I was familiar with the backstory and could understand what the writer was doing with the plot and characters.

Second in the Harry Virdee series, it is the story of this Cop who is estranged from his Sikh family for marrying a Muslim Girl. The story opens with Virdee, a cop finding out that his niece has been murdered and him stepping foot into his parent's house after ages to break the news.

What works:
  • The opening scene is powerful. It drew me in with its tension and hook. It shows how Virdee is feeling the pressures of his job and creates the curiosity of what is going to happen next.
  • There is blood and gore but it is part of the story. Dhand is talking about the dark side of Bradford and well it justifies its presence.
  • I enjoyed the personal lives of the characters, it is engaging and makes sure that it has a continuing thread that will run through its subsequent books too.
  • The writing style is snappy and very contemporary. Here is a writer who doesn't mince words and knows how to make an impact with it.
  • I followed the newspapers from where the basic plot is based on. It was great to watch how the author has shaped it to fit the fiction mould, while adding his own touches.
What doesn't:
  • At times there feels like a desperate attempt to keep up the gore part to appeal to certain type of reading audience. To me, it was a bit much.
Overall, a good read. I loved the novelty of it all, how a desi writer combines Indian sensibilities into this "firangi" thriller. I am looking forward to finding out how the complicated personal lives of the main characters will play out in the later books.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Couple Next Door - Shari Lapena
A tense domestic thriller that starts brilliantly.

Canadian novelist Shari Lapena's The Couple Next Door is indeed a much talked about thriller as the jacket proclaims. It has drummed a lot of attention which is why I went around looking for it. Her bio reads that she was a lawyer and an English teacher before she turned to writing. That experience surely must have helped us as she combines her knowledge of police procedures and writing style to form a riveting plot for her story.


It starts off brilliantly. The story opens with a set of new parents at their next door neighbour's party. The opening scene is brilliant, it is tense, there is a lot happening and draws you in completely. It showed my student self how opening scenes are done. Superb. The mother is tearful, she is watching her hostess flirting with her husband as she battles feelings of hopelessness and low self esteem as a new mother. By the end of the chapter we learn that the baby has disappeared from its cot while the couple are still partying with their neighbours.

Who did it? How did it happen? Although the couple starts of as victims, they soon find themselves as suspects. Then begins the cat and mouse game of finding out who is telling the truth and crucially who has done it.

What works:
  • It is the stuff that every parent can relate to. The fear of losing a child, the fear of criticism and blame as a new mother. Lapena does it brilliantly. I loved Anne and how she holds on shreds of self esteem while tries to figure what was happening.
  • There are not many characters but Lapena makes them count. I loved the husband and wife. It was exciting to watch how the couple seen as victims turn into suspects. She builds up the tension quite well and I won't lie, it had me up till quite late in the night. 
What does not:
  • The narrative is superb. I kept on turning pages in a rush to get to the end. However, the reveal was not as great as the build up.
  • Halfway through you could see where the plot was leading to and though the writing style was good, it fizzled out a bit for me, as I felt as though Lapena was trying to secondguess the reader.
  • There are lots of twists and turns and there is one that is revealed right at the end but then by that time, it was hard to be surprised at all. The momentum somehow depleted for me.
Overall a great fast track read. It has a great premise and a riveting writing style, just wish the build up was as good as the reveal.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Stay With Me - Ayobami Adebayo

photo courtesy:
A well told story that works on many levels.

Ayobami Adebayo's debut novel is really impressive and considering her academic background, it only seems logical. Her masters degree in literature and creative writing forms the foundation for this well honed talent. It is displayed to good effect in this book.

I came across this novel after it was chosen as the Mumsnet book of the month for March. Apparently, it was also shortlisted for the Women's Prize in Fiction and has garnered a lot of praise. However, my first impressions of the book were a bit sceptical -  it sounded like a treatise on the exploitation and unfair treatment to a women in a rigid society. But Adebayo's writing and plot pacing makes it a refreshing and an insightful read.


Yejide runs a salon and is quite a successful businesswomen. However, its been four years since she is married to Akin, and they are still waiting to have kids. Looking for options, her mother-in-law arranges for her husband to have a second wife to help Yejide conceive. Yejide goes to drastic lengths to make it happen. In the process she embarks on a journey full of heartbreak and insight as she lives the consequences of her decisions.

What works:
  • The beginning is so strong. It draws the reader in while providing a political, cultural context. The short chapters are brisk and drops the reader right in the midst of action. We quickly learn of Yejide and her dilemma and are swept into the story. 
  • Adebayo packages the Nigerian culture very neatly into the plot too. The words, the habits are beautifully incorporated. It is "exotic" but it also provides insight into how the society works. She has a very matter of fact approach about how something like childlessness becomes a public topic with everyone offering advice and solutions. Reminiscent of the Indian culture.
  • Adebayo displays a keen sense of plotting. Throughout the narrative there is an edge-of-the seat feeling. There is a constant element of suspense, throwing off the reader and her assumptions. 
  • Adebayo also portrays a mature angle to love and loss and what it feels like to be ostracised as a childless women. She uses language very effectively to convey this.
  • My favourite line from the book is :
If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love.” 

It encapsulates the relationship between Yejide and Akin and the complicated nature of it. They are allowed to fall in love and get married. However, the happiness of their relationship is marred by societal demands and eventually falls prey to it.
  • The story is packaged quite well. Set in a different cultural milieu with its own rules and regulations the writer is not vary of using another language and alienating the reader. She weaves it quite well in the story while capturing some universal emotions that women all over can relate to. The feelings of desperation and the fear of society is portrayed quite well through Yejide. You feel sorry for her and empathise with her as she takes the steps she does.
What doesn't:
  • The story does not explain a lot of things. It expects the reader to connect some dots often leaving it up to the reader to interpret. Some readers may feel a bit shortchanged, confused. I liked the way the writer leaves the reader to fill up some gaps and for a debut writer to display such confidence is commendable.
Overall, a great debut. This writer knows how to tell a story well while challenging the reader. Superb.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Lola's Secret - Monica Mcinerney

A warm hearted sequel about the Quinlan family.

If you have read its prequel, Alphabet Sisters it will make more sense. I did, a long time ago. I also read its sequel Trip of a lifetime before reading it. So it was kind of inbetween for me. But then that did not feel like a disadvantage. It still worked as a standalone for me.

Monica Mcinerney's books are all about the domestic sphere. How the dynamics of a family - full of different individuals operate as part of a bigger network as the family. It is a feel good well written novel and Mcinerney is very good with this.


Lola the grand matriarch of the Quinlan family has a secret plan. All around her, her loved ones are battling their private wars. Her granddaughters are struggling with motherhood, whereas her son and daughter want to retire. All around there is chaos and she is the one keeping the boat afloat, the connecting thread that runs through them all.

She decides  to send them all away for Christmas and manage the motel on her own. Her idea? issuing invites to random strangers. Sounds bizarre? But that is Lola Quinlan for you.

However, while she is planning surprise like that, life is planning another surprise for her. What is it?

What works:
  • A breezy fast track read, the characters are great and the writing style as usual draws you in.
  • The characters, the banter seem so real as though we have known this family for ages.
  • She captures the trials and tribulations on motherhood and its affect on marriages.
  • The side stories of potential motel guests are also well plotted.
What doesn't:
  • There is a certain amount of predictability. You know how things are going to pan out. It is more of a soap opera where some dramatic scenes have been thrown in, some twists and turns for good measure.
  • It does not have the edge of seat feeling. However, it has that feel of a breezy outing to a place you have been to already. There is escapism and a delicious sense of community here.
A feel good weekend/beach read. I found this better than its prequel and sequel.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

My Name is Leon - Kit De Waal

A moving Story about a nine year old boy, race and politics.

I confess I had some preconceived notions. When I read the blurb and some of the reviews, I presumed it to be a heavy dose book. But it is not. It is a touching story, where humour and dark reality come in close contact.

A nine year old boy meets his brother for the first time when he is born. As the story moves on, we learn this is a dysfunctional family with an absent father and a boy who becomes a carer for his mother and his brother. However, their circumstances change and we find ourselves moving around with Leon as he tries to make sense of everything around him. 

What works:
  • The narrative. The writing style makes it a page turner. Written from the nine year old boy's perspective, it is heartwarming and full of insight. Kids have their own way of making sense of the world, much different to an adult's. It is insightful and practical without becoming overdramatic. 
  • There is a dark side to it but then there are many happy moments too. I was filled with dread about what was going to happen to this vulnerable boy - hallmark of a well written novel.
  • Also, it provides an insight into the social care system and the people and the procedures that make it work. De Waal does a great job of shining light on it all. The fact that she has experience in the field is an added bonus. It gives an authentic sort of ring to it.
  • Love the way she weaves race into her story.  I couldn't help comparing her to Levy who writes on similar subject. But where Levy makes it the basis of her narrative, De Waal refers to race issues as part of her story along with its repercussions.
What doesn't:
  •  I loved the way the story panned out. It had me on the edge, even though it is not a thriller. The little boy I met on the first page, grew on me and I found myself looking out for him as he met new people on the way. Some might say, (without giving the plot away) that it is too chick lit and candy floss.
For me it was a life affirming read. A well written story which is told with humour and very insightful. Works brilliantly. I enjoy De Waal's writing and shall be looking out for her books more.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Six stories and an Essay - Andrea Levy

a photo courtesy:
A personal journey told through a set of stories.

Andrea Levy is new to me. I had never read her before. But after this collection that encapsulates all that she believes in, there is now an admiration for this author and the curiosity to know her works better.

The book has an autobiographical essay, a very well articulated experience of growing up as  an African child in Britain. It resonates with me, although it was decades before I arrived here as an adult. I see my children sharing similar experiences although the English society is a more modern and self aware than the one of her time.

The Gist:

The essay talks about the immigrant experience in Britain in the 60s. It talks of Levy growing up in a council estate absorbing all the English "flavours" of social behaviour and attitudes and yet she is singled out as black because of her origins and colour.

The six stories that follow are a slice of that immigrant experience - stories that come from her mother's experience and which introduce characters of her other novels.

What works:
  • The essay is strong and makes a valid point. It makes a case for British slavery in the islands and how has escaped the British history books. It reminds of the Indian Independence which has a similar treatment. The English history books claim that the empire chose to leave the country and decided to hand it over to the natives. But the Indian version claims that it had to fight tooth and nail to secure it. Levy's essay makes a very valid point and an insightful one at that.
  • The stories elaborate what the essay is trying to say. What I liked is how the author introduces the story with her own anecdote. It makes it personal and offered a masterclass into what goes into a short story.
  • Levy has a great writing style. That she feel strongly is clear in her tone in the essay and the way she has used it in her stories shows how experience can be woven into a well structured story. 
What doesn't:
  • Nothing really. It is a well packaged slim volume - full of impact and a fastread.
Only wish someone of Indian descent had the guts to write something like this.

Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

Story about migrants in an age of terrorism said through an accessible narrative.

I loved Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist - the book better than the film. When Exit West was shortlisted for the Booker prize book, that was when I heard the noise about the book - and also the the premise of the story. Ever keen to read about the state of migrants and their place in an age of terrorism, it was promising. My only concern was that it was a Booker prize shortlist.

I often find that such a book does not connect with mass readers like me (there are exceptions though). The writers often choose to write for the elite audience comprising mostly of Prize judges.


Shy and reserved Saeed meets the unconventional burka clad Nadia and together they set off on a relationship that spans continents and situations. Both migrants in terrorist ridden countries, their lives are in constant uproar and we follow them as they find them opening doors to a better life as their own self changes as a result of the situation.

What works:
  • The narrative is very fluid. It takes you through gently, deep into the story, as you take flight in the magic realism.
  • The very first line had me hooked. 
"In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her."

I  can easily visualise this opening line joining the list of famous first liners. What a powerful line! It has a striking effect with its imagery and characters. It gave me the sense of a love story caught in conflict. A great way to introduce the story.
What doesn't:
  • The magic realism can be a bit abstract for some readers who want straight forward narrative. The story is very subtle and yet it has some strong imagery and statements. 
Overall, a great read. Don't be fooled by the thin volume, the writing makes you pause and think after every few pages. Superb.