Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Murder Room - PD James
One of my reasons for picking up PD James is the consistent pattern of her novels. Once you get used to her style and the narrative, you pretty much know what to expect and well, get it. It is like cuddling up on the couch to watch a movie by your favourite director. You are prepared to like something or everything about it.

In a nutshell:

The setting is a small elite museum in London, devoted to inter war years founded by a war veteran and carried forward by his children who act as trustees. However, when one of the trustees is murdered, suspicion falls on the siblings, volunteers and as investigation goes on, it brings to fore, the lives and motives of the characters.

But what is interesting is the how James has used this platform to show the class differences in her characters, in their thoughts and also their lives and use it as a dimension to the story. The character portrayal and keen observations make all her novels fascinating and well, this one falls in the same category.

What works:

  • A great setting and characters 
  • Good suspense

What doesn't:

  • Limited use of direct speech could mean that reading it could get a bit monotonous at times.

I have never been able to guess the killer in her novels. The day I do, I may stop reading her. But that is unlikely to happen.

The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahiri
I approached The Lowland with scepticism after my Bengali friends (her ardent fans) said they were disappointed. Steering clear of it for a while, I couldn't resist when it turned up at my library. Perhaps their disappointment stemmed from the hype around its booker prize nomination. Devoid of expectations, and anticipating an average novel, I was pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise.

Lahiri has always based her books on the Bengali immigrant experience and this is no different. But what is refreshing is the way she has used the naxalite movement as the background to unfold the story and take her complex characters through it.

In a nutshell:

Subhash and Udayan are two boys growing up in the 60s and find themselves in the brink of the naxalite movement. Udayan becomes a naxalite supporter whereas Subhash travels to the US in search of better prospects. Their paths diverge, as they move on with their lives. However, though their ideology, priorities and persona differ, they end up marrying the same girl. Gauri elopes with Udayan to marry him and later as events unfold, leaves for the US as Subhash's wife.

The story takes a turn from then as the focus turns on Gauri as she tries to adjust and forge her own way with a helping hand from Subhash. However, their relationship built on shaky ground is under constant threat and their daughter Bela is the casualty of their fragile marriage.

What works:

Lahiri's main strength lies in the way she delves into the minds of her characters. Subhash's relationship with Bela their daughter is beautifully described. The changes in their relationship as Bela grows from a young girl to the reticent teenager and later the strong willed woman is beautifully portrayed.

  • The characters are strong and diverse and she paints in them various shades.
  • The story is well plotted as the ending sheds light on the behaviour and the morally questionable actions of the characters.

Read it as a standalone novel without the hype surrounding the book and its author and you may find it worth your time.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
A fantastic multi layered book which simultaneously reads like a whodunnit and also as a guide to great novel writing.

Joel Dicker's French novel translated into English is a delightful read. Marcus Goldman a one off literary sensation is struggling to write his second bestseller. He turns to his mentor Harry Quebert for help but turns out Quebert is in trouble after a girl's body, who went missing 33 years ago, is found on his property, with a manuscript of Harry's one and only literary classic. 

Goldman decides to come to his mentor's aid and starts digging around. Meanwhile, he is under pressure from his publisher who wants to cash in on the publicity and persuades him to write a book about the scandal.

As Goldman digs into the past, it paves way for his own bestseller, a book which will define him and change his relationship between him and his master forever.

The truth about at many levels. At one level it is about the mystery of the murdered girl. But it is also about the relationship between a mentor and a protege, a guide to writing a good book, about a girl called Nola and people around her who are in one way or another connected to her disappearance, 33 years ago. Dicker links these facets and blends them quite seamlessly into his novel. 

Of course, the translation by Sam Taylor is quite good, a major plus since the book is like a tome at over 600 pages. The length of the novel can be a deterrent for it is some time before the story actually takes off. The first 150 pages really took some perseverance to stick with it. But after 350 pages or so, and I found myself making excuses to get to bed early to catch up with the story with its many twists and turns. 

Whats works:
  • Great story, plot and characters
  • Excellent narrative 
  • Neatly outlined tips to writing a great book and then illustrating it through the plot
What doesn't:
  • The length of the book. The sequence of events can be condensed a bit to make it a slicker plot.
One of the best books I have read through Goodreads. A cracking read, a marvellous story.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Cover Her Face - PD James

Reading PD James is always a joy and an educational experience. Her mastery of the language and her razor sharp observations about human conduct make it a learning experience. Which is why her novels are not simple whodunnit but more like why they did it. 

Cover her face is about a murder in an English mansion house. The victim is a servant girl who dies hours after announcing her engagement to the young man of the house. It seems straightforward but then as Adam Dalgliesh delves into the investigation, it reveals many people and many motives. 

I have to admit that somewhere in the middle, it began to get a bit tedious. James' novels are quite demanding as they examine motives, intentions and mental make up of characters. However, it is worth it, because it is difficult to predict the killer. She makes the reader slog through it and yet rewards the reader's patience by giving a great motive and an unsuspecting killer in the end. 

That is what makes James' novels readable and enjoyable.

 Cover her Face is a great example. Do try it.

Spilt Milk - Amanda Hodgkinson
A story about sisters and the choices they make.

It is a warm, frothy story of women who make mistakes and then live with it. However these mistakes only make them strong women, brave enough to challenge and disregard societal stereotypes in the
war ridden society of the 1930s.

Nellie and Vivian have been brought up by their older sister as companions for one another, discouraged to envisage themselves as wives and mothers.  After their sister dies, they then fall for the same man and life never remains the same. However life does get back on track and when the time comes, one marries for love and the other for security. Hogkinson traces their lives with insight and it is very interesting to see how their experiences impacts their perception and persona.

Nellie then has a girl Birdie who is partly raised by Vivian who is childless herself and the two women share a strong maternal bond with the child. Birdie too makes choices with disastrous consequences and years later, family secrets worm out of the closet when least expected.

Hodgkinson's depiction of the countryside is beautiful. I could easily imagine the river, a focal point of the novel, and feel the water gushing through my feet, dragging me along and keeping me grounded at the same time. I know this sounds a bit overboard, but the countryside setting adds to the charm of the plot and lives of the characters.

What works for the novel:
  • Good strong, female characters
  • The concept of family ties that every woman can relate to 
  • Great descriptions of countryside

There is nothing that doesn't work here. It is well written and is quite timely. At a time when the greenery is making a comeback and the sun is shining brighter, Spilt Milk is an ideal read for those lazy evenings in the garden or for enjoying the sun by the beach.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Advent Killer -Alastair Gunn
A pleasant surprise by a promising first time writer.

I had just finished The Cuckoo's calling before this and the Advent Killer came as a balm to soothe the wounds inflicted by Rowling.

At a glance, Gunn's crime novel seems run-of-the mill, with arresting one liners and a jacket desperately calling for attention. No fault there, after all he is no established name but going by the book, he may soon become one.

The basic premise is this murderer who churns out dead women every Sunday starting from the first week of December (hence the title). Hot on his trail is DI Hawkins, newly promoted and whose reputation lies on nabbing the killer. Although competent, she is not without her own baggage - personal and emotional, often colouring her perceptions and consequently, her handling of the case.

Crime novels are quite basic in nature - a murder and the detective solving the murder. But what sets the Scotts and Baileys, the Veras, the Barbara Havers apart is their quirkiness and the personas they inhabit. In this Gunn has done a great job. He has created a humane and an endearing character of Antonia Hawkins and portrays her with conviction.

Gunn's grasp of police politics, the gossip and the pressures they live with shows him off to good advantage. It is his keen eye for observation and the most crucial element of a crime novel- the ability to keep the reader interested enough to make them turn another page is what won me over. That, for me is the hallmark of a good writer.

It is this that makes it worthy of four stars - a well written novel with strong characters. This is despite the fact that the plot comes across as tad predictable.

But it is the characters that stay with you long after you are finished with the book. Perhaps what will follow is a slew of cases based on these characters of Hawkins and Maguire the Amercian colleague who happens to be her work partner and ex-lover.

Their relationship is very conveniently left open-ended and it would be interesting to see how their relationship pans out in the face of new cases and the complications arising thereof.

Mrs. Sinclair's Suitcase - Book Review

A good read that could have been much more.

It came as a pleasant surprise when I tucked in, that there was not one but two stories running simultaneously; set in the past and the present.

The story begins with Roberta, the heroine who works in a second hand book shop and loves to collect forgotten letters, postcards left behind in books. Interestingly, each chapter that tells Roberta's story starts off with a discovery of a letter or a postcard and the details of the book that she finds it in. I was eagerly looking forward to a treat, but admit to some disappointment by the time I got to the end.
Shuffling through the pages of a book, Roberta chances upon a letter written by her grandfather to her grandmother, raising doubts and forcing her to dig into the past and unearth a long hidden family secret.

As the story flashes back to her grandmother, Dorothy Sinclair, her circumstances and life during the war, the story starts off with a bang but meanders down the middle. Although it is well written, the plot seems a bit stretched. Perhaps the focus was more on painting wartime lifestyle setting and how people lived then but it slows down the plot and makes it more predictable.

However, it is Roberta's story that is more interesting as it strikes a very contemporary note of isolation, the bonding of colleagues at the workplace and eventually the romance with her employer.

The book is very well written, Walters has a turn of phrase which makes it a delightful read. Mrs. Sinclair's story wans a bit although Walters' description of life during the war has an authentic and pictureseque ring to it.

What works for it:
The flashback/flash forward technique of story telling, strong female characters and well written descriptions

What doesn't:
Predictable plot that stretches out in the middle and hurriedly goes about resolving itself in the end.

My recommendation:
The blurb and the one liner builds up a lot of hype that is unfortunately is not delivered by the novel. However it is an enjoyable read and look forward to reading more from Ms Walters.

Alphabet Sisters - Monica Mcinerney

The alphabet sisters is about three sisters, once very close till a major rift draws them apart, after one of the sisters marries the other's boyfriend. 

However, the girls' grandmother has kept in touch with them over the years and insists on having them come over for her 80th party. Well, so much for hidden agendas to get them together once again but it is the ease with which the story flows that makes it a crackling read. 

The novel particularly delights in some witty conversations, the repartee between the sisters and their grandmother. Mcinerney is clearly at home when she talks of bonding between sisters and family relationships (apparently she comes from a large family full of siblings) . The dialogues are a joy to read and once can easily relate to the situations in the plot as the story moves between the past and the present during their teenage years and their adult lives. 

My only complaint is that it tends to meander a bit, but I suppose when it comes to talking about emotions and feelings, a bit of a wide berth is called for. 

Over all a warm and frothy summer read. Recommended for anyone who understands what it is like to have siblings.