Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Strangers on 16:02 - Priya Basil

A novella that offers a delicious slice, leaves one wanting for more.

I read Basil's Ishq and Mushq and loved her style. Sometime back I read Basil's personal essay in the guardian which provides the backstory for one of the characters. Linking the two made it for an enriching experience.

Basil's Ishq and Mushq was a feat - shortlisted for Commonwealth writers best first book - 2008. Commonwealth lists seem more accurate when it comes to representing some truly talented writers and I have read a few that confirms it. So this one came highly recommended on that score and for the most part I really enjoyed it.

Therefore this novella had high expectations for me and I was really looking forward to reading it.

Gist:

As the caption already mentions, a london tube journey that brings two unconnected characters together that ends on a catastrophic note.

What works:
  • Her style it is amazing how she introduces the main characters and their reasons for being on the train. 
  • London Tube is a great place to set a story and it was great to see a story based on it.
What doesn't:

It is a novella form after all. With its tight structure there isn't much room to play around. This could have easily been a novel. 




Thursday, 14 February 2019

Like Water for Chocolate - Laura Esquivel

Add caption
A story of how food and cooking reflects the flavours of life.

I always enjoy stories where food and plot are interwoven together. My last read of a similar style was Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Mistress of Spices.

Laura Esquivel is a South American Writer and this Mexican love story apparently was the bestseller list in Mexico and America for over two years. Written way back in 1989, it was made into a movie in 1992. I haven't seen the movie though and came across this book when it was recently mentioned in my writing class when they were talking about a book which had food and cooking as an important element for narrative. The reason why it is in news is it is part of a trilogy with its sequels written in 2013 and 2017. 

However, I came to this book not knowing that it was perhaps the book whose copies matched the sales of One Hundred Years of Solitude. 

Luckily I was unaware of it and therefore no preconceived notions.

The title, which I found terribly intriguin was a literal translation from the Spanish that means "Agua para chocolate" meaning when a person's emotions are on the verge of boiling over. Having read the novel, the title makes sense now.

Gist:

Tita is the youngest in the De La Garza family. According to the family tradition the youngest girl is not allowed to marry since she was expected to look after her parents. However, she falls in love with Pedro. Knowing that marriage with her was not possible, he then marries her older sister Rosaura to be close to her. What follows is a 22 years of unconsummated passion. Their relationship is marked by freak mishaps, bizarre happenings until Tita and Pedro are united again.

What works:
  • It is a slim novel that can be easily finished in one sitting.
  • The writing is not conventional in the sense,  it does not introduce the characters as you would normally find, perhaps therein lies its appeal.
  • The element of magic realism is put to good use especially when it comes to introducing the flavours of food.
  • The way Esquivel has used more of third person narrative instead of dialogue. The story is plot heavy and yet Esquivel handles the technique well, making it a compelling read.
  • What I really enjoyed is the fact that the writer does not seem to be moulded by the standard storytelling tradition which is carefully shaped by creative writing classes. There is a rawness to the style, a fresh approach that I really liked.
  • The concept of rigid family traditions, rituals give an  insight into the Mexican Spanish society. A big plus in my book.
What  doesn't:
  • Except for the character of Tita Pedro and the matriarch, I did not find any other character having that much of an impact.
  • The story is not exactly linear, there is a bit of back and forth and situations are not clearly explained. There is a lot of third person here which makes it a bit of a difficult read at times.
  • The writing style is a bit unconventional as mentioned before. Some readers may find it difficult to adjust and therefore be put of by it.
Overall, I can see what the appeal is. It has an exotic factor to it - the Mexican Spanish way of life and traditions and the element of food that is stirred into the fabric of the story.

A great combination. But not to everyone's liking. Pick it up if you are feeling adventurous or in a mood for something different.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Zizzle Literary Magazine - A review


Aenchanting experience for both adults and children.

I had never reviewed a literary magazine and was keen to see what this one had to offer. First impressions? This bright blue hardbound copy definitely speaks of quality - the thickness of the page and the bright illustrations were a definite plus when I held it in my hand.

I reckon the difference was more obvious after handling those flimsy magazines that my kids pick up at the supermarkets. This one stands out for its solid cover and eye catching illustration. As the caption goes, it is a literary magazine for young minds. Interesting. Young minds include those budding minds yet to blossom into adulthood and those young at heart. Sums up the ethos of the magazine well.

THE MAGAZINE

Zizzle is a literary magazine published in Hongkong but the contributors are from mostly from United States, UK and Malayasia. The foreword shares an interesting anecdote on how the magazine was born. It was initially visualised as a flash fiction for 8-12 year olds. However when the submissions came in, the editors realised its appeal to the adults too. The focus then changed to children's stories that can be enjoyed by everyone. Therein lies its beauty. Instead of compartmentalising it, the magazine has attained a flexible form providing an enjoyable experience for adults and children.

What works:
  • The layout. Each story is neatly spaced with and categorised in terms of reading level - Easy, Less easy, Not easy. It challenges the reader without putting them off. Like that.
  • Author connection. Each story is accompanied by the writer's childhood photograph. A great way of getting acquainted with the writer before digging into the story.
  • The stories are just the right length, a quick bedtime read.  
  • There are tiny quotations that allow the reader to ponder over the story, adding value to the experience.
  • The well planned illustrations bring the stories to life, adding colour and imagination to the pages. 
  • The USP of the magazine is that these are stories about children that adults can enjoy too. Reminds me of the Disney movies that I enjoy watching with my kids. My eight-year-old daughter loved it especially when we read it together at bedtime. 
  • What makes this a holistic experience is how the writers discuss their childhood books and share their experience of reading. A tiny detail that brings the reader and author closer.
  • I also enjoyed reading the author bios where they also talk about idea behind the tale - a lovely insight into how stories are formed.
Verdict
  • My daughter loved How the moon scared the giant. My favourite was the The Road to Valhalla - a story about a boy discovering his voice. 
  • As a learner of the craft, I appreciate the style and the value of these stories. They are extremely high quality and yet accessible to the reader. A big plus in my book.
  • I would think it is ideal for 11-14 year olds although they can also be enjoyed by younger children if the parent reads with them. Like I did. It gave me a chance to bond with my daughter through these stories.
For me as a reader, these were like a box of mouthwatering choco bites - quickly gone, but the aftertaste lingers on for a while. You won't be able to stop at just one.


Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Half a World Away - Cath Staincliff

A mother's nightmare, a sneak preview into China.

We are planning a trip to the country and came upon this one when I was looking for books based on China. I had never read Staincliffe and was glad to find her at my local library.

A quick look up told me about how the writer is mainly into thrillers and is well known for her previous books. The premise sounded interesting, a mother letting her daughter go on gap year only to realise her worst nightmare had come true.

Gist:

Lori Maddox has just finished her university and wants to go travelling. Her separated parents Jo and Tom drop her off at the airport and go back to their lives. Jo now has a new partner Nick and two young sons. In the beginning Lori keeps on updating them on her life through her blog, "Lori in the Orient" but then the updates stop coming. Jo and Tom begin to worry and then start calling for help.

Lori had moved to China to take up a English tutor job before she disappeared. Unable to find out anything 5000 miles, Jo and Tom travel to Chengdu in the Sichuan province to track their daughter down. They get in touch with her life and try to find out what happened even as they realise that with each day of her disappearance, their chances of finding her  is getting dim...

What works:

  • The story is laid out well. The background is established well. The opening scene of dropping their daughter off at the airport, the tension of the exes is captured well.
  • The characters are well etched. Nick, Tom, Lori and Jo sound like people we know. Easy to relate characters. Loved the way she establishes their personalities.
  • The way she describes China from a tourist point of view is endearing. I almost felt that I was travelling with Lori when she writes about her experiences. Also love the way Staincliff captured a gap year student's voice.
  • Staincliff is great with showing relationships. Loved the way the shift in relationships occur due to this life changing incident.
What doesn't:
  • The momentum sags a bit in the second half as the story reaches its high point - the reveal. Although it backs on track towards the end, the neat tying up of loose ends.

Overall, a great story. If only the reveal was handled properly, it would have been a great read, but nonetheless a good read. I enjoyed reading a story set in China. Read it for that novelty alone.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle - Stuart Turton

photo courtesy: waterstones.com

My first read of the year and what a way to kick off the reading challenge.

I just finished this book and simply had to do this review. I had heard about this book on readingthepast book blog and was keen to get my hands on it. With a title like this, can you blame me?

For a while I was going through a reading slump. Nothing really interested me, I was unable to stick to something till the end. But thankfully this one has put an end to it.

The story with its bizarre premise, is intriguing but it had a big task ahead - To convince the reader to enter that weird world, be invested in the characters and stay interested.

The book does that and more.

Gist:

Blackheath is hosting a grand party at the big house. Guests have been invited to stay and servants working hard, preparing for a ball.

But at the heart of it is a murder. Of Evelyn Hardcastle and it will happen again and again. Aidan can stop it and save her but he needs to get to the killer. But the trouble is every time the day begins again, Aidan finds himself in the body of a different guest. And someone doesn't want him solving the murder.

What works:
  • The premise is so weird - time travel, body hopping? but Turton makes it interesting. I was worried that the complicated nature of the premise will weigh down the plot but it doesnt. The superb first chapter that starts off as a very straightforward thriller like scene - takes the reader by hand, slowly taking her to the depths of the plot.
  • What I loved about the chapter is that like the narrator, it could well be the reader, finding themselves at Blackheath with no clue of why they are there. The reader gets pulled in immediately as she along with the narrator try to figure out what was happening there.
  • The style. What makes any reading experience great is the writing style. It was a joy to look for phrases and imagery that make the story telling a compelling read and an enjoyable experience. It made me take out my notebook to jot down the phrases to admire their beauty.

There's instinctive pause for my rejoinder, the rhythm of the moment collapsing under the weight of its absence.

or the description of how  the mansion Blackheath transformed at nightfall.....

The world's shrivelling beyond the windows, darkening at the edges and blackening at the centre. 

or lines so articulate that is a nod to the writer's skill...

  • Nothing like a mask to reveal somebody's true nature.

The stories are spun from one mouth to another and by the time they reach me, they're rich details and patterns, strong enough to be carried out of here and into society.

Death's rolled his dice and Evelyn's paid her debt. All that was of value has been taken.

Some of the imagery that made me chuckle:

Working within the confines of Derby's intellect is like stirring croutons into a thick soup.

I could go on and on but this is testimony to the writer's skill at not only narrating a story that is weird but believable but also add to the reading experience with its rich imagery and superb turn of phrase.

But finally hats off to the writer for building this fantasy world where nothing is as it seems  - at once concrete and abstract.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience to say the least.

What doesn't:

It feels like a fairground ride, thrilling till the end and then a feeling that all is known. But in this case because the device used is so brilliantly handled, it will be exciting to re read it again to find out how
the writer pulled out a stunt like that. There is definitely more than one reading to this book and that is where it scores.

A very well crafted story. Highly recommended.

The Woman in the Window - A.J. Finn

photo courtesy:amazon.in
A creepy thriller that is reminiscent of Hitchcock

I was surprised to see this book compared to Rear Window. Having read the book now I can see why. The hype around a book is a sureshot way of heading for disappointment, I believe. However, this is a new writer and sounded very promising from his interviews .

Gist:
Anna is holed up in her house - she is agoraphoic. She loves looking out of her windows into her neighbours - and one day she ends up seeing something bad happen to one of them.
She is on medication, alcoholic and cannot step out of her house.
Will anyone believe her?

What works:
  • The writer is writing for today's audience. Crisp sentences, narrative that completely pulls you in are its hallmark traits.
  • Anna, the flawed heroine is so reminiscent of today's heroines whether it was Girl on the Train or Before I go to Sleep. It is perfect in line with a characterisation where the protagonist is grappling with her own issues before she can go out there and stop the perpetrator.
  • The writing is so tight that it doesn't let you off the hook at all. I found myself tied to it. A great way of smashing that reader's block that I was struggling with.
  • Full of action, I can already visualise it as a movie.
What doesn't:
  • Although the ride was good, once the suspense is over you feel like you are done with it all. I do not think I will go back to it for a re-read.







Uncommon Type - Tom Hanks

photo courtesy: amazon.co.uk
Too much hype, too little delivered.

I love Tom Hanks as an actor. I have watched You've Got Mail hundreds of times and enjoyed it every time. The story, plot and the Hanks and Ryan combination is amazing. I loved his boyish charm and his ability to get into the skin of the character. I loved him as Dr. Langdon although the subsequent ones were not as good as the first two, I admired his acting capabilities as Walt Disney in an all out battle with Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks.

So, getting my hands on this book felt great. Here was a person I admire who had written something. Believing that a written work reveals a lot about the author, I picked it up. hoping to understand the multi-faceted talent a bit more.

Gist:

A set of short stories from different walks of life.

What works:
  • They are average stories.
  • Interesting as a first time read.
What doesn't:
  • I am not sure, I would have stuck with it if it had not been this famous name.
  • Very few stories stand out in my head and even then not for their writing style.

I suppose there was too much hype about it. Hanks is a talent, there is no doubt about that. But perhaps in this case, the hype had more value than the content.

Skip this one. There are better short story collections out there.