Friday, 15 June 2018

Legacy of Spies - John Le Carre


A master storyteller, though did not work for me

Le Carre is often called as a literary great when it comes to spy stories. His best known one "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" is supposed to be a classic and it is often recommended as the introduction to his works. His Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is another popular book that has been adapted for the big screen many times. I watched the latest TV series and rather enjoyed it.

Having read all the big reviews, I felt I was really missing out by not reading his books. Moreso because his new book came out recently after a gap which resurrected all his earlier ones as well. Apparently, his latest one was also a hit with the likes of Gordon Brown talking of how accurate his observations were.

With all this hoopla around the writer, I finally decided to go for one of his latest ones, although it followed on from his earlier books.

Gist:

The past has come back to haunt Peter Guillam, one of the aides of Smiley. The new management at MI6, an attempt to protect its reputation, is keen to find out about Operation Windfall. Guilliam is tracked down and asked to account for the various anomalies during the operation.  While Guilliam gives them explanation, we as the reader are taken into confidence as he reveals his own parallel verison to the reader.

What works:
  • The writing style is interesting. The reader is taken into confidence as the version of events unfold. Usually the reader is told of the events, here she is the confidante, privy to the actual set of events.
What doesn't:
  • The writing gets quite dry at times and you are left wondering where is it leading to. Perhaps Le Carre's writing style needs getting used to. 
  • It is a bit of a laborious read. The pace is slow and since much of the story is told in reverse, the story lags in between, leading to wavering attention.
  • It will help if you are familiar with the characters, I was not. I had only seen the TV and on screen adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which was more like a standalone story.
  • I struggled with some bits and even getting to the end, felt a bit dragged along.
Not the greatest of reading experiences, this one. 





A Rising Man - Abir Mukherjee

photo courtesy: amazon.co.uk
A crime story set in the fascinating Old Calcutta

This book created a lot of waves especially since it won a crime writing competition. An accountant by profession, the author explains how the inspiration for it all in an interesting interview on the Asian writer website (http://theasianwriter.co.uk/2016/06/abir-mukherjee/) Reading the interview along with the book was a great way of understanding the writer and his work. Thanks Farhana for posting an insightful interview.


Gist:

Sam Wyndham comes to India for a fresh start. However, within a week of his arrival, there is just the case of him: the murder of an Englishman outside a brothel with his throat slit and a note stuffed into his mouth. A potential loss of face if the word got out, Sam is asssigned the case along with his Sergeant "Surrender-not" (Surendranath) Banerjee to track the perpretrator.

What works:

  • Abir shows off the old Calcutta incredibly well through Sam's eyes. He visualises a beautiful city under British Raj revealing a good grasp of setting. 
  • Loved the word play with "Surrender-not" and how Mukherjee establishes the relationship between the two main characters - The oriental and the occidental (the idea behind using these words is to shed light on the subject of the rulers and the subjects) . the two main characters are well etched as are some other recurring characters such as Miss Grant.
  • The plot is well thought out, detailed and Mukherjee is clearly comfortable with the setting. The idea of setting crime stories in British Raj Calcutta is novel, unexplored as yet. The story pans out very well and it is amazing how the characters fit in so well with the characters.
  • It is very easy to visualises this as a TV series. Here's hoping it happens soon.
What doesn't:
  • The book is how it should be. Entertaining with lots of action, as well as educating a colonial about the ways of Indian culture.  It is laid out commendably well and has the ingredients of a satisfying read.
I am on the lookout for the next book in the series.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Ishq and Mushq - Priya Basil

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I am reading this book at at time when the existence of the commonwealth body is being questioned.

Although I have reservations about how and why Commonwealth came into existence, I appreciate how it has contributed to the fields of Sports and Literature. 

Funnily enough I picked up this book only after learning that it made it to the commonwealth writers shortlist. To me, it adds a certain level of credibility and often I have enjoyed Commonwealth shortlists more than the Booker prize ones.

Commonwealth offers opportunities to countries that otherwise eclipsed by the more powerful who always almost hog the limelight.

When it comes to sport, India always shines at Commonwealth games rather than the Olympics. It always bags more medals at this event rather than the Olympics  where it is China and America who rule the roost. 

But I am more concerned about literature and to me, it showcases a vast array of writers who would have escaped notice. Discovering Basil in this manner was a surprise and a lovely one at that.

Gist:
Sarna a young bride is travelling with her husband from Amritsar to Kenya to her in laws house. The story tracks the journey of this young couple as they move into a joint family and then move out to seek their own fortune in London. Spanning continents with historic events at the backdrop, the story is a fascinating tale of the importance of food, domestic lives and how the past comes back to haunt the present and threatens their future.

What works:
  • Basil writes beautifully. Her imagery and her descriptions are superb and it is a joy to read it.
  • She is talking of a time when Kenyan immigrants moved into London and made it their home. She draws a great verbal picture and though I have no idea how authentic it is, to my mind, it felt genuine. It felt as I was peeking through a door that showed me how London became the cosmopolitan city that it is now is.
  • The characters are distinct - particularly Sarna. It is a strong woman character and the story pivots around her. It is a character driven story and yet it shows how she has an impact on the lives of her family. 
  • Loved the way food has been used to convey emotions such as resentment, hatred and secrecy.
What doesn't:

  • The story slags a bit in the middle. I lost the momentum and was a bit bogged down by the slow pace. However like every good story it perks up as the denouement comes in sight and then tights up neatly.

  • The story could have really picked up if only something drastic would have happened. However, the turning point doesn't seem that significant. The so called revelation does not seem to have that much impact and that was a bit of a letdown.

But it is a well written book. The imagery and the description especially connecting food and emotions is beautifully done. 

I liked it enough to gift a copy to a bookloving friend.




Friday, 20 April 2018

Girl Zero - A.A.Dhand

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
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.

Gist:
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

goodreads.com
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.

Gist:

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: goodreads.com
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.

Gist:

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

q
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.

Gist:


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.