Monday, 29 September 2014

Stone Mattress - Margaret Atwood

An interesting set of stories, where some are better than the others.

Margaret Atwood is quite a revered name. I have heard her more than read her books . Her books Blind Assasin and Handmaid's Tale are quite famous though I couldn't muster the courage to pick it up yet. Perhaps, my fear was that she was too "high brow" for me. Therefore when, I got this book for review, it gave me a chance to overcome my inhibitions and discover her writing.


It is basically a set of short stories where the first three stories seem to be linked as the characters are enmeshed in these three stories. It is more of a 3D perception of characters where a change of voice and perception, throw the same incident in a different angle. It was very interesting and I enjoyed it. The Stone Mattress, which forms the title of the book, surprisingly enough was towards the end. I would have thought it would be the first one in the book. But nonetheless, that one as well is an enjoyable read. There is a strong theme of old age running through the stories. The characters have all lived a long life and therefore the stories contain a big timespan which make a crucial contribution to the plot.

What works:

  • Atwood's description of an old authress living in a big house, while a snow storm is raging outside is terrific to say the least. In Alphin Land, I felt the Canadian winter raging across my window as Constance, tries to make sense of her surroundings, stocking on supplies, with her dead husband hovering in the background. 

  • I loved the way Atwood conveys the sense of loneliness, while talking about this fantasy game created by Constance. This mixing the old and the new was very well done in my opinion.
  • Stone mattress works on a more emotional level and is a case of revenge. Again, she conveys facts in a detached manner as Verna comes across Bob who destroyed her life, on a  cruise and seeks revenge. 
  • The Dead Hand Loves yYou is also an enjoyable read. How, a chance promise turns Jack's life upside down. It has an element of surprise and again the old age theme is dominant in the story.

What doesn't:

  • Some stories seemed like fillers and were a chore to get through. Though freeze-dried groom had an element of suspense running through it, it felt a bit bland and forced when compared to the other stories.

  • The Dark Lady, the third story in the book, is an extension of the first two stories. However, though the first two stories seemed to have substance, it seemed to fizzle out till you get to the third one. It was a bit dragging although things did look up once you got to the second half of the story, since it starts making sense then. 

Well, the best part of reading short stories is you can dip in and out of it. Some stories are gems which show a lot of insight and objectivity. However, some as I said are boring and bland.  Perhaps, I found it repetitive and it failed to engage my "low brow" sensibilities.

An ok sort of a read, aimed at the literary kind and not the casual reader.

Monday, 22 September 2014


As a child, I was always the one to be found in a corner with a book in hand. Years later, this passion turned into a profession when I became a journalist with Times of India.

Life moved on and so did I from India to the UK. I still remember arriving here as a newly wed bride shivering more from cold than the prospect of entering an unknown life.

A lot has happened since then. A new life, two wonderful children and a new cultural perspective are just some of them. One thing didn't change though - the love for the written word. The result- this blog. Besides it offers freedom from the trappings of the audience driven format of a broadsheet.

My creative instinct doesn't apply to just words but includes food too. What started off as a need based activity is now a much loved hobby. Now that I have overcomed the "hiccups" (read kitchen disasters) culinery experiments are now a favourite not only with me but with the family too!

Yet another interest is arts and crafts for kids. It is amazing how kids appeal to one's creative instinct. It began as an option to keep them occupied, now it is a fascinating inclination.  Often you will find me looking at discarded cardboard boxes or a pair of tights as potential art projects although not necessarily a successful one!

Anyway, this space is designed to celebrate my love for books and life.
If you like what you read, do drop a line.

It keeps the motivation levels up, when self doubt kicks in .

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Facebook Therapy

It is amazing how technology can make a convert out of the most resistant cynics.

I witnessed the changover in a close friend "Buddy" who was staying with us for a while. Never one to post pics or updates, he maintained an online account with a modest friend list. However, he termed it a "social therapy" with contempt. So, when he joined the bandwagon, the story had to be told.  

It all started when he went through a gruelling time at the Indian embassy. Applying for the OCI card (Overseas Citizenship of India) for his baby boy had turned into a frustrating nightmare and it took many a bump, hurdle and roadblock to see the application through.

The experience left him cold and seething about the rigamarole of the Indian bureaucracy. Looking for an outlet, he proceeded to open --not a bottle -- but his laptop and drown his sorrows in, ahem, Facebook.

After typing out a few furious lines about the frustrating experience, he decided to take a break. When he logged on a few minutes later - click click, click - his friend list had come out in hordes, hitting on many "likes" followed by accounts of similar dismal experiences. It was a gratifying moment, the hardened lines on his face eased into a smile, the trauma of his experience washed away by the torrent of shared sentiments by kindred spirits.

Buddy has now formed a solid bond with Facebook. Whether it is to talk about a lousy movie, a nail biting cricket match, the site gives him the chance to connect, be heard or just make a point. 

That is what makes Facebook so popular, isn't it; this ability to alleviate loneliness without crowding your space. A community ready to offer sympathy, solace and social approval. How else would you explain a public letter of affection between spouses, a digital shot of culinary experiment turned out well, raving about a great holiday or a rant about Monday mood? 

So much for critics berating that technology has impinged on social interaction; it seems to have opened more avenues than before. People are always chatting, watching, catching up through comments, updates and pics, even when engaged in an activity. 

Does that mean that we are closer to our friends, now that we are better informed about their lives? Or maybe it is a time efficient way of managing relationships, devoid of awkward pauses or the strain of maintaining a real conversation?

A recently published news article on the BBC website reiterates this. Apparently, UK has lost the art of conversation where a survey suggested that most people prefer to drop in a line on social sites or text a message instead of having actual conversations over the phone. I am sure it is not true only of the UK but of any metro city where technology is deeply enmeshed in the fabric of its lifestyle. 

But on the other hand, what can be a more effective way of maintaining contact when you are miles apart, in different countries, yet wish to keep in touch?

The other day our daughter first started school, a milestone moment for our tiny family. She was all dressed up and excited and I felt sorry that her grandparents, uncles and aunts were not around to see it. So, I held my phone, clicked a pic and off it went to our online group. Within minutes, they responded, saying how nice it was to see her off to school virtually at that point in time! My friends were responding with reassurances that she will be fine, while I was fighting back tears, thinking of my little baby as a big school girl.

All it took was a picture that helped me share that momentous occasion easily, across time zones! How marvellous is that?

Usually, the day would have been marked during our weekend calls back home, but thanks to social groups, it was possible to convey, communicate and share our feelings, right away.

I guess, these sites are our anchor, as we steer away from home and build lives in faraway countries. We may not spend much time talking but it surely helps us to keep in touch, sharing bits and pieces of our lives amid busy routines.

After all, it is all about staying connected, isn’t it?

The Signature Of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

This is one of those books that will leave you thinking about the book much after you have closed it. You will want to revisit sections for a better understanding of what was said because you are too busy enjoying the book to realise that you have been entertained and educated simultaneaously.

Gilbert's previous bestseller, Eat Pray and Love drew a lot of attention. Frankly, it did not appeal to me although I was impressed by her style. It was her style that stayed with me when I read the book for she has a great way of worming her way into the reader's consciousness despite the thin plot.

Her next book, Committed was  a comment, on marriage as an institution based on her analysis of its relevance in different cultures. Again, it did not garner my interest, as it seemed too contrived. I suppose this was a book for marriage sceptics who formed the fan club of Eat, Pray and Love.

The Signature of all things, however came as an interesting departure to her previous books. This was pure fiction set in the Victorian era in the Americas, centred around a heroine who was a scientist and was a story about her life experiences.


Alma Whittaker is born into a household where logic, reasoning are paramount and the education of the mind a crucial element. When still a girl, their parents adopt another girl called Prudence who is all she is not, breathtakingly beautiful and low on intellectual abilities. Both sisters grow up into young women and make choices which affects not only their lives but also their relationship.

What works:

  • Gilbert has a firm grip when it comes to depicting Philedephia of the 1800s and etches out a great character in Alma.
  • Her writing style is arresting and she pans out the story well, taking it from England to Philadelphia to Hiati.
  • She also introduces science in a very interesting manner, blending it in the story so well. The study of moss which can be boring is explained very well, so much that the reader is drawn into learning more about it. That is surely a plus.

  • Henry Whittaker's journey to America is interesting and I loved the businessman's character which was a foil to his intellectual wife. The characters stay with you for a long time whether they are suitors and later husbands of Alma and Prudence or the Dutch housekeeper, the keeper of secrets in the household.
  • It is obvious a lot of research has gone into the book as Gilbert brings in Darwin and the possibility that his theory of the origin of species is perhaps not his own. A commendable effort at making the world of science so accessible and entertaining to a science hater like me.

What doesn't:

  • The story stretches a bit towards the end. The Hiati experience is exotic but it seems Gilbert was too carried away by it all. It stretches on, losing the reader  momentarily and suddenly gets back on track with developments. That part could have been edited and turned into a taut section.

Overall, it is a great read, a terrific effort. This book shows off an entirely new dimension of the author and leaves the reader enlightened at the end of it. Much recommended.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Ralph's Party - Lisa Jewell
A lighthearted novel about the labours of love.

I enjoyed her other book, The House We Grew Up In and since then, Jewell has been a writer that I much like. She tells her stories with sharp insight. Her plots are all lighthearted and frothy but it is the clarity with which she describes her characters and gets them into situations that appeal to me. I reckon this is her debut novel and although it shows promise, she has perfected the art better in her later ones.


The story is about people inhabiting a set of flats on Almanac Road, full of working professionals and their trials and tribulations in love. Ralph and Smith are on a lookout for a flatmate and Jem walks in, into their flats and lives. Karl and Siobhan have been living together for a while but change is in the air, will it change their relationship too? Cherie is the beauty on the prowl for a guy and has sights on one of these guys. Although, they all lead separate lives, they find that they are all interwined and all is revealed at Ralph's party.

What works:
  • The story suggests of personal experience and Jewell seems to have drawn on her personal life to carve a story out of it. It is easy to get into and has a very urban feel to it.
  • The characters are all different although they have the same issue - their love life. It is entertaining to read how they connect with each other and the way they think about each other.
What doesn't:
  • The story is a breezy romance. However, there are times when all that candy floss can be a bit too sweet for itself. The introduction to the characters takes a while, but once they are established, the story is then on a roll. 
A great downtime read. It is entertaining and apparently her debut novle. This is not her best book.I found Vincy and Joy and The House We Grew Up In much better than this.

Well Schooled in Murder - Elizabeth George

A complex murder mystery typical of Elizabeth George.
I have enjoyed most of her books mainly because she manipulates the genre so well. Her stories are not only about who did it but the circumstances, the psychology that goes behind in the killing.

Her stories are mature and handled skillfully. It is amazing to get acquainted with the characters and get to know them so well. However, although I admire her skills, the plot themselves are quite dark and disturbing. I have to admit this one left me a bit uncomfortable, may be because I am a bit vulnerable when it comes to crimes against children.


A school boy is murdered in a posh boarding school. Lynley and Barbara are called in to solve and in doing so they enter the confines of an elite institiution that is burdened under its own nasty secrets.

What works:

The plot is complex and is layered with mystery. George unravels layer by layer to unearth the real story and thereby lies the pleasure of reading it.

Great characters. George's characters are so well etched, that it is difficult to stand in judgment against them.

What doesn't:

The trouble with such well etched characters and complex plots is that they take a lot of space and this slows the pace. The story takes a while to take off and requires patience on the part of the reader.

Overall a great read. If you are in the mood for something challenging in crime genre then this one will appeal to you.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Accidental Apprentice - Vikas Swarup

A rollercoaster ride of drama and emotions typical of a bollywood movie.

Swarup's other book The Slumdog Millionaire is quite famous for the controversy it courted.  I can't comment how much was true since I did not pick up the book, opting like others, to watch the movie instead.  My thoughts? Well, I share the reservations quoted by many about portraying India through "a white man lens", and using the squalor and the poverty to call it "a country with colour". But this did not put me off picking up this book. The reason being the premise sounded good, the title interesting and sounded like this was a totally different fare. 

The gist:

On a weekly visit to her favourite goddess, Sapna Sinha, a non descript sales girl is accosted by a billionaire with a proposition- to become the CEO of his company. However, she needs to participate in some tasks which will test her mettle. It comes with a sweetner; two lakh rupees would be hers to keep for making the effort, regardless of the outcome. Practical headed Sinha is tempted but she has her doubts. However, circumstances force her to accept the offer. This triggers a set of dramatic events that puts Sinha into the hotseat as the story zooms through the dusty lanes of Delhi, to the rural areas, from dilapitated factories on the outskirts to cramped prisons, ending finally in the one of the poshest areas of the city.

What works:

  • The premise is good. It immediately draws attention and kicks off really well. Swarup has a great way of telling a story without demanding much of the reader. Like a hindi movie, the plot is kept straight and narrow with a total focus of action. 
  • The writing style is simple, direct and the story totally plot driven. The series of events happen bang one after another, pretty much like a thriller.
  • Despite the improbable events, he does manage to convey the essence of India. The khap panchayat, the child labour, the organ donor racket, and the corruption that lines the fabric of the Indian lifestyle, is so true and rings a bell with the Indian reader while providing a keen insight for those not familiar with the workings of the country.
  • He also conveys the quinessential Indian concept of a family through Sinha's relationship with her mother and sister.

What doesn't:

The story has the entertainment value of a film. It seems as though it has been designed to showcase its potential as a film and has been constructed accordingly. That is sad. Swarup obviously buoyed by  his Slumdog success is eager to replicate it as well. However, it is a disappointing that the writer has focussed his energies on creating a film which is a different art form, before getting the book version right.

In the book, the protagnist strikes a conversation with a movie actress and all they can talk of is Slumdog as a movie. Surely, it is not such a great movie to spark conversation between strangers! It seemed as though Swarup wanted to have a say on the controversy and used the conversation as a medium. It was an obvious tactic and a desperate one at that. 


A great downtime read if you are looking for something racy with entertainment value.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Girl in my Husband's life....

Ours was an arranged match; but by the time we got around to planning the wedding, it was because we were only too happy to spend our lives together.

It was a fascinating first couple of years. We took time to get to know each other, to share personal space and lives together.  There was a sense of harmony, a symphony of things falling into place. There were bumps and hurdles of two personalities meshing in, but we enjoyed every minute of it and thought this is how it is meant to be. But it was not to be the case.

Our lives changed one sunny summer afternoon.

She made an appearance and with her arrival, brought in a tsunami of change. It was no gradual or subtle transformation. The difference was immediate and striking; almost as if a bolt of lightening had struck us. It hit us both but left one casualty behind; my husband. He was overwhelmed by her presence and surrendered to her enchanting persona.

I saw him in a whole new light as if a new person had replaced the old one. To be honest, I do not blame him. I did not escape unscathed either from her mesmerising spell. She had a way with people, making them take notice and once they did, they were enchanted.

She would dictate terms and he, a default non-conformist, would fall in line. I could feel the pull, the power to which he was drawn her, as if swept by it all. But I also realised something; he was enjoying it to the hilt.

She glided into our lives and blended very seamlessly into it. Over a period, the changes became more obvious. Riding with us, in the back seat of the car, she soon moved to the front, sharing space with him. He would glance sideways and often hold out his hand to her. It was as if they were oblivious to everything else, quietly communicating in their own way, within the comfort of their world.

Our first born. Our daughter. The love of my husband's life.

There are moments of envy but it is mixed with pride and affection. It is a delight to watch her play around with my husband, testing his patience, pushing the boundaries. As a baby, she dictated terms about when we were allowed to sleep or not on those long nights. As a toddler, we were on our toes, as she took off to explore any nook or corner that caught her fancy.

Time passed by and eventually we settled into a predictable and comforting rhythm.

We thought the upheaval was over; tranquility had been restored. Nothing would rock the boat anymore. But we were wrong. The boat not only rocked furiously, it toppled us over.

Lightening struck again. This time I was the casualty. It was a surreal feeling when my baby boy smiled at me and I felt the mesmerising effect wrapping itself around me, covering me in that familiar pall of smoke...