Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Mrs. B- Elizabeth Walcott Hackshaw

A warm contemporary slice of Caribbean life.

Talk about the Caribbean islands and I begin to think about floral shirts, women wearing blossoms in their hair, moving around in flowing skirts and sleeveless tops. But how do the people living there feel about the changes engulfing the country, the rising violence, the political unrest that is shaping their country's present and future.

Elizabeth Hackshaw does a very good job of portraying the today of trinidad through the characters of Mrs. B, her husband Charles and their daughter Ruthie.


Mrs B and her husband Charles wait for their daughter Ruthie a student in Boston who takes a break from studies to a mental breakdown after a failed affair with a married professor.

At one level it is about relationships that of a mother and a child, a husband and wife and a of a childless woman who loves her neice as her own. While these relationships collide and blend according to situations, at the heart of it lies the changes in the community and country as people are forced to huddle in gated communities as a means of security against an unpredictable and insecure political climate.

What works:

  • The story is laid out well and Hackshaw does a great job of delving into the minds of characters and assess their perspectives.
  • The perspective of the young and the old is dealt with quite effectively. The liberal morals of the younger generation whereas the status conscious perception of the older generation is portrayed quite well.
  • It is not a plot driven story, for nothing really happens much and therefore the characters shine out well in the backdrop of some beautiful writing. Hackshaw shows off her writing skills as she flits between proper English and the Caribbean English at times. Very well done indeed.

What doesn't:

  • Since the focus is more on conveying a slice of Caribbean life, the thoughts and ideals of the modern people, it tends to sag a bit. But the characters more than make up for it.
  • I could never understand why the character was referred to as Mrs.B that stands for Butcher. Apparently, she hated the names and therefore the initial. It reminded me of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca where the heroine has no name or identity. But here it is not the case. Mrs. B is a strong character who affects situation but I still couldn't fathom the reason for not using her maiden name though it crops up in places.

Ishmael's Oranges - Claire Hajaj

A keen insight into the Jew-Palestanian conflict and the way it affects human lives caught within it.

I couldn't help compare it to the The Almond tree by Michele Coran Corasanti which handles the same theme from a different point of view. The Almond Tree book deals with the story of an Arab who battles poverty and the strife in the country to rise above his stature, he makes his way to the US as a renowned professor and then comes back for his family who were unable to escape as he could.  Hajaj's story is about a Palestanian boy, Salim and a Jewish girl, Judith who are on the opposite sides of the strife. They find love on neutral ground and attempt to build a life yet find their prejudices and differences constantly threatening their happiness.

The Gist:

As a boy, Salim flees his house, forsaking his beloved orange tree in Jaffa when the war breaks out between the Jews and Palestanian Arabs. To make matters worse, his mother leaves the family too, taking only their youngest sibling Rafan with her. Years later, Salim heads to London to pursue higher studies and falls in love with Judith, with a story of her own. Despite scepticism and stiff opposition, they get married and start a new life away from Israel, but eventually find themselves at crossroads, confronting their past and prejudices.

What works:

  • The characters come alive in the pages and win the empathy of the reader. This need to break away from the strife when everything else reiterates their cultural notions is done quite well.
  • The story flows very well and offers an objective and emotional view of the situation in Israel. 
  • The narrative is powerful and the writing style is smooth.

What doesn't:

The pace is a bit slow in the beginning, the letter in the beginning did not make sense till I read the end and then I had to read the beginning chapter again to make sense of it. But that highlights explains the skill of the writer and credit to her for handling such a difficult subject with such tact.

In a nutshell, a great read, well written and offers an interesting perspective on a conflict that needs to be documented more in literature.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The house we grew up in - Lisa Jewell

A great novel about a dysfunctional family and a secret that lies at the heart of it all.

I picked up this one to decide if Lisa Jewell was more of a "chick lit" author and am I glad to be proved wrong. Jewell is a storyteller first and foremost and she weaves fantastic tales.

This is her latest book and about a woman who is a "hoarder". I remember watching trailers of documentaries of what made these people to accumulate stuff and Jewell has come up with a pretty good explanation for that.


The bird family is a big family with Lorelei and Colin at the helm looking after their four children. However, what seems like an idyllic childhoo turns sour over a period of time and the family disintegrates, leading to weird relationships, misunderstandings and chaos. As events unfold, all the children leave the house and so does Colin the husband and Lorelei is left all alone in the house turning the beautiful cotwolds cottage into a health hazard with her hoarding habit. Lorlei has an internet lover and it is through mails that we get to hear her side of the story when all the other characters simply wonder what made her act like a weirdo. She dies in the most tragic circumstances, of starvation and neglect. Upon her death, the family gets back together again and tries to piece together where they went wrong and look for redemption.

What works:

  • The characters are so effective that even when they make uncharacteristic decisions, it is very easy to see what drove them to it. Excellent portrayal of character.
  • Jewell has this great way of conveying banal, bizarre and the most uncomfortable facts in a dry and a matter of fact manner. Her style is so smooth that she manages to tackle the most awkward subjects ina very simplistic yet effective manner. 

  • Jewell also conveys quite well the way we perceive people through their actions, interpreting them in a particular way, without wondering if there could be other reasons to explain it. Lorelei's hoarding habit turned her eldest daughet into a cleanliness freak and her younger daughter into a diffident person but they mistook their mother's freak habit as abnormal rather than understanding the reason for it.

What doesn't:

  • The story is about a dysfunctional family is bound to be bizzare but sometimes, it felt as though Jewell was taking it too far. At one point I felt I was watching something out of Eastenders, the way the characters were forming the most unliky relationships. It seemed to be a bit too much.

In a nutshell:

Overall a great read, Jewell plays the story in a very understated manner that it flow well without building a hype and turn out lame. The characters start off as a family, move away to live their lives and then come back to the cocoon of the family nest where they find the evasive peace and resolution they have been looking for.

An engrossing read indeed.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Vince and Joy - Lisa Jewell
I picked up Lisa Jewell after reading rave reviews about her previous books. This title was irrestible cause it reminded me of a similar book I had read of Cecilia Ahern, "Where rainbows end" and I wanted to see how Jewell tackled it.

It is fascinating how two authors handle the same theme in different ways. Ahern's book is about a series of notes, text messages and emails between two childhood friends who love each other but at each point they try to say it, fate intervenes, making them go different ways.

On the other hand, Jewell uses the same boy meets girl-falls love-fails to say it-and years later they meet-and-yet they do not confess their love-make different choices-concept, it is a very enjoyable read and though sugary at times, it strikes a chord with the reader.

The Gist:

Nineteen-year-old Vince meets Joy at a caravan park and they lose their virginity to each other. However, after what is a subliminal experience, they part without saying goodbye. A lot happens over the intervening years such as disasterous relationships and family upheaveal till they finally meet at a point when eventually things do fall in place.

What works:

  • The style is frothy and very chick lit, yet Jewell tackles some tough issues, paints some unique characters and manages to convey the harsh truths in candy floss language. 

  • Her story though is simple, it is layered with emotions that connects very well with the reader.

What doesn't:

The plot is a bit formulaic.

They are feel good escapism, but why am I complaining? I loved the book and am definitely going for another of the author's books.

Marriage Material - Satnam Sanghera
An excellent book about cultural conflicts and family secrets in a British Asian family.

With characters shoplifted from Arnolod Bennet's Old wives tale, (Sanghera's own words) Marriage Material is a refreshing take on what it is like to be a British Asian, the confusion of juggling between traditional values and western thought.

My first thoughts were, a lot has been written about it, what else is new. But Sanghera has very cleverly set the story in a corner shop, how shopkeepers define the British perception of the Asians and has made it topical by referring to the 2011 riots which I thought was very clever and added a new dimension to the plot.

The Gist:

Arjan Banga, a graphic designer, comes back home after his father's death to look after his mother and their family shop. The first few chapters are more like an introduction to Banga and his family, his childhood and a general view of Asians in general. He also learns of his "dead" aunt who broke away from tradition to marry outside community and Arjan decides to seek her out to resolve family issues.

At another level, there is a parallel narrative, about two girls during the Enoch Powell era, when first generation immigrants were viewed with scepticism and the immigrants were apprehensive about letting go of their values in pursuit of a new future in a foreign land. Being raised in this atmosphere, the girls make their choices which leads to their separation. Decades later, they meet again as two divergent personalities and credit to Sanghera for making it believable and endearing to the reader.At one point both narratives blend in to emerge as one which then takes it to the logical conclusion.

What works:

  • The characters are very well defined. Whether it was the confused Arjan Banga, his traditional mother kamaljit or his aunt, Surinder Baines or Sue Baines, the personalities are very well etched out. It is really easy to identify with the characters and one can relate to their choices and decisions.
  • The self deprecatory wit and the humour that laces the novel. My particular favourite is the one where Arjan Banga talks about the newspaper report on his father's suspicious death. "The widow of a tragic shopkeeper who recently died ......." had me in splits!
  • The plot turns and bends very well, taking the reader by surprise. A definite plus.
  • The writing is fresh and though the theme is a oft trodden one by many Asian writers, Sanghera infuses it with a interesting perspective especially through the 2011 riots.
 What doesn't:

  • The story takes a while to pan out and one has to endeavour to stick to it. The initial introduction reads like a documentary on Asian shopkeepers in general. It meanders a bit but then once the story gets started, the pace gets better.

In a nutshell, a new voice in Asian writing and one that holds attention. This is a great book about the dual identity of being a British Asian. If nothing, it is a well written novel with many laugh out aloud moments. Highly recommended.

Monday, 9 June 2014

A Colder War - Charles Cumming
A spy thriller with a slow paced plot.

I was excited to receive this book as part of goodreads giveaway. I heard a lot about its prequel A foreign country and was eager to get started on this one. The slow placed plot was a major disappointment, aren't spy stories supposed to be racy from the word go? Thomas Kell as a character who is a disgraced spy is good and intriguing. Although slow to begin with the last 150 pages is where the action and a reader's delight from that point.


Thomas Kell, an out of favour agent is called in by his boss to investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding a close friend's death. The idea is that there is a mole who has been sniffing out secrets and passing them on to the enemy and Kell has to identify and the nail the guy to clear his friend's name and the find out the reason for his death.

What works:

  • Thomas Kell as a central character is great and Cumming provides sufficient background to acquaint and endear the reader to him.

  • The whole idea of spy world is quite authentic too. It reminded me of the BBC drama Spooks, the concept of duplicity and secrecy that goes with it and this story contains layers of it.
  • The writing style in in keeping with the kind of story: simple, straighforward manner even when it comes to painting the complexities of characters.
  • The  love-hate relationship between the MI-6 and CIA is also well done

What doesn't:

  • The plot is too slow for a spy story. Cumming spends a lot of time explaining the background perhaps for the benefit of those who have not read A foreign country. This however, does not help the story much and this reader who has not read the prequel feels a bit trapped with so much background info when all she wants to do is get on with the story.
  • Too much time spent in the heads of characters which delays the action. Though it helps in setting the story quite elaborate, it restrains the pace of the story .

However, action really picks up in the second half and the reader is in for a treat as Kell chases the mole down and nails him. The story also has an open ending, paving way for the third book in the triology.

In a nutshell:

A good read. However, this writer demands patience on the part of the reader. The back of the cover indicates the possibility of a film in future and will be looking forward to it.
Perhaps in this case, the movie will be better than the book.