Saturday, 23 January 2016

A Fighter till the end - Joe Aswat

It was like any other day when I walked my daughter through the school gates. But I could tell something was different. Some of the girls that walked in were in tears. The parents were hugging each other. As the teachers came out of the classrooms onto the playground, their eyes were red and cheeks tear stained.

On one side there were parents like me blissfully unaware observing the other set, who were clearly in mourning. It was apparent soon enough. Joe Aswat - a mum who had her three girls in the school had died of cancer last night. I remembered her thin frame and had seen her running along the road many times. I thought she was a fitness freak, obsessed with a fit body but never in my wildest dreams did I guess the reason.

It left me shocked.I knew she was unwell but cancer? I had no idea.

photo courtesy: leicester mercury

She was a school governor, who had stepped down last year and pretty much a regular figure at the school gates. I remember her walking her black pup to school and chaining it to the gates before walking in to wait for her kids. Ever ready to lend a helping hand, she would be helping out at the school coffee meetings. Once, I felt a slight tap on the shoulder and there she was smiling away while handing over Aadi. She had seen him heading for trouble while I was talking to the class teacher.

I did not see her for a while during the autumn term and Cheeky came home saying that her friend's mum was in hospital. I had heard vague remarks about some surgery. Then after witnessing such an outpouring of grief that day, I wanted to learn more about it.

An online search took me to her "Just giving" page and I was awestruck by what she had been going through.

She had posted her experiences and what a well written piece it was, conveying a grim story with such humour!

Joe apparently had been fighting the dreaded disease for many years. But grit and determination saw her bounce back each time. At the time of writing the post she had decided to run for the London Marathon in April 2015, She had done well and the local newspaper called her a superhero for her accomplishments.

 My heart went out to the kids, the youngest being only 7.  I thought about Cheeky and shuddered at the thought. They must have had it hard for a long time but even then this must be so difficult. The entire school rallied around them, offering them solace and support in anyway they could.

It was heartening to see the community feeling amid such a big loss for the family. Despite the sadness, my heart swelled with pride at having known such an admirable woman.

R.I.P Joe. You were a fighter till the end.

French Concession -Xiao Bai

photo courtesy:one world publications
After sailing through the last couple of books which were fairly less demanding, I went on a rollercoaster ride with this one.

The book appealed because of the some keywords - Chinese writer and "French" in the title proved an exotic combination. I love Chinese culture, their writing and always am on a lookout to discovering new talents. When this one came by through the goodreads giveaway, I pounced on it....and won a copy!

The synopsis suggested it was about crime, mafia, double agents. Since this is exactly up my alley at the moment, I couldn't wait to get stuck in.


The story is the set in the 1930s, a time of change, of political clout and international interest. The story begins with an assassination at the Shanghai harbour. The victim is a top official who was to arrive with his wife, Leng. The killer shoots himself after the assassination and the wife goes missing.

Hsueh a photo journalist who was on board the same boat, finds himself in the midst of all it. He is travelling with his white Russian girlfriend and sees Leng and is stunned by her beauty.
But he has issues of his own. His girlfriend Therese, seems to harbour secrets of her own and he is keen to find out what they are.

When Hsueh is caught by the French Concession - an area that is controlled by the French officials, he is forced to walk a tightrope walk between the police and the outlaws.

There is also this legend called Ku, the leader of a gang behind the assassination who is now planning something even major, that has the police on its toes.

What follows is a complex web of deceit, manipulation and betrayal as events spiral out of control. Hsueh is oscillating between his feelings for Leng and Therese while trying to keep them all safe.

What works:
  • A clever writer and a great translator are at work. The jacket cover is intriguing, the story cover exotic and the writing just sucks you in.
  • There are maps which suggest where the assassination took place or where the hold up was going to be, lending a meticulous attention to detail and an interesting feature to the story.
  • The action is good and the last hundred pages are packed with suspense and adventure.
  • Some of the lines are so good that they slide in and out of the novel. The ones that keep coming to me are:
There is never a good time to tell someone you love them. But then whenever you do, it usually sounds right.

It surprised Hsueh that no woman could withstand the power of those three words.They all seemed to be under the same spell, or to have drunk a potion that made them play the same part in the same movie.

The setting sun shone on the pool outside, and the water shimmered like the glistening skin of a belly dancer.

What doesn't:

  • The style is not the standard western style. It is crooked, haphazard and takes reader for granted. 
  • The story demands concentration as names are thrown in and action takes place without warning.
  • The first hundred pages do not make much sense as events and characters turn up without a proper introduction and the reader is swamped with a lot of information.
  • There is a lot of passive paragraphs instead of dialogues that affect the flow of the story.
  • The narrative is clear because of the splendid translation but it is the style that makes it difficult.
I would have given up halfway. But something about the story made me want to understand the style and stick with it. However, once you get over the style and narrative, it is the same crime thriller about double crossing, vested interests and the race against time which gives the reader of a sense of familiarity.

Overall. it is a demanding read but something different. I enjoyed the story although it did take some effort. The characters are good but it is the action that reigns supreme in the story. 

It appealed to the serious reader in me. I loved the characters, the insight into the culture, the story behind "concessions" and how international politics wanted to worm its way into Shanghai. It offered a glimpse of a politically changing China.

The writer's note in the end was another fascinating read, where he talks about how he got the facts and used creative licence to turn it into an entertaining read. It offered some great perspective into how the story got made, which added to the reading experience.

However, the casual reader in me struggled with it. If you are looking for a racy, linear read then you may want to skip this one. 

Go for it if you are willing to make the effort. 

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

All Shall Be Well - Deborah Crombie

A good read better than the first one.

The second one is definitely better than the first. You are probably wondering why this Deborah Crombie overdose. Well, I had to read the second one since I had them both as an omnibus.

So coming back to the review, I liked this one more because the characters now had a dimension to their personalities. Even the victim's persona is that of a child of a Raj seemed like an interesting touch adding value to the story itself.

This one too was a quick read and therefore it did not take me long to get the review here.

Jasmine suffers from cancer and leads a quiet existence attended by her nurse and a few close friends. She lives on the same apartment as Duncan and is good friends with him. It was common knowledge that she did not have long to live, Her death,therefore, does not come as a surprise. There is a shocking revelation when a close friend suggests that Jasmine was planning euthanasia but changed her mind at the last minute. 

It sows the seed of suspicion. Matters are complicated further when her will throws unfavourable light on some of the suspects. 

Kincaid and Gemma get on the case to find out truth even as Kincaid finds it hard not to be emotional about his neighbour's demise.

What works:
  • The style gets better in this one. It is crisp and introduces the characters well. The added dimensions of a child of the Raj and a major who has served in India provided some interesting character studies. It makes you appreciate the research of an author who has lived in the US not the UK and must have worked hard to get her facts right.
  • The writing is good and flows well. 
What doesn't:
  • Although as the story keeps pace there is a bit of an abrupt turn when things come to a point where the complications are untangled and a resolution is in sight. 
Overall a fast racy read.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

A Share in Death - Deborah Crombie

photo courtesy:
Discovering the first in the long series.

As said earlier, I am a big fan of Crombie. Having read her latest, I decided to backtrack and read her earlier novels. This is the first in the series and it was interesting to read about the fledgling characters of Kincaid and James.

I have to admit though, after reading the later ones which are more fulfilling in terms of character development and plots, this one comes across as a more "amateur" effort.

The plot is fairly straightforward and the characters of Kincaid and James are just finding their feet on the ground. But what makes it interesting is to see how these budding character were before their personas develop into complex, sophisticated entities.


Duncan Kincaid is on holiday at the timeshare hotel in Yorkshire. When one of the hotel staff is found dead under suspicious circumstances, the Scotland Yard super is thrown into the midst of it. Duncan has a tough job of mediating between the guests who single him out for being a copper and with the local police who do not like him treading their patch.

There is a slew of characters who inhabit the hotel - A young family, a politically ambitious couple, a set of two sisters and a father-daughter family who are all suspects.

Matters escalate when a hotel guest is found murdered and Kincaid realises he  needs to up his game to stop the killer from murdering again.

Kincaid enlists the help of his work partner Gemma Jones to do the legwork which he tries to figure out the next victim and the killer.

What works:
  • This story offers insight about the characters and the plot develop with each novel. 
  • It is an interesting read for anyone who wants to know how the characters are developed.
  • Though slightly amateurish, it flows well and at 200+ pages it is a quick read.
What doesn't:
  • In comparison to her later works, this looks very simplistic and basic. There are no complex layers that are a distinct feature in her works.
  • It feels more like a crime novella than a novel. Having read the subsequent novels, I was aware of characters developments and this one felt like visiting their younger selves. However, for someone reading it as their first introduction to the series, it may feel like a morsel instead of a meal.
  • Just as every first effort shows off some influence of the greats who have trodden the path before, this story follows classic Agatha Christie pattern. Some obvious indications are - 
1) a number of guests have various reasons to be secretive. 

2) The eureka moment when it all comes together to Kincaid about the who, what and why also seems heavily influenced by the Agatha Christie.
    I picked it up when looking for a quick dose of crime fiction.

    It is short and sweet: just right for me at the moment.

    Tuesday, 12 January 2016

    The Forgotten Summer - Carol Drinkwater

    A sunny breezy read to brighten the winter months.

    At least that is how I felt when I read it just after the christmas festivities had died down and the January blues had just set in.

    Carol Drinkwater's Olive farm series, that chronicles her experiences in France is quite well known. A quick search on the net further enlightened me that she was a big name, an actress well known for her role as Helen Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small.

    Now that I suitably educated about the author, I was hoping that it may not mar my expectations about the book. I have to admit, the jacket is such a bright and an inviting one.It transported me instantly to a sunkissed holiday in France and found the story to be equally refreshing.


    When the book opens, Jane is happily married to Luc, a film maker and is in France to visit his "hitler" mother Clarrisse. They make this annual trip to oversee the grape harvest at their plantation.

    Although the friction between the women paves away for the plot, the first few lines are rich of vivid descriptions of the verdant landscape and bright sunny days. The setting provides a great platform for the story to unfold as Jane's simmering history with her mother-in-law is kept under check by Luc.

    However, before the season is over, circumstances change. Jane's world is turned upside down and she is compelled to confront some ghosts and unsavoury secrets.

    Jane is also forced to do something she loathes - return to the plantation and inhabit the manor house with Clarrisse.

    What works:
    • The beautiful descriptions. They entice the reader to turn pages and relish the armchair visit to the French countryside.
    • The story. The plot steadily builds up the story and raises many hows and whys that keep the reader engaged.
    • The secrets. A good story always has some secrets that to hook the reader while enjoying the ride. 
    • The characters. These are people who feel real with their predicaments. They win empathy and the reader can see their personas very clearly.
    • Apart from an entertaining story, it also throws light about the Algerian war with France and its effects. Getting some history through an entertaining tale is always a plus with me.
    What doesn't:
    • There were instances when the scenes and locations changed without notice. Usually the change is marked by a new paragraph. However in some places, the location just changed and the reader had to orient themselves without the benefit of a space between paragraphs. 
    I suppose this was because mine was a proof copy and hopefully, the paperback will not have these inconsistencies.

    I received this book as part of the goodreads giveway. However, that has not influenced my review in any way except for picking it up sooner so that I could comment on it.

    I enjoy reading new authors and these giveaways give me a great opportunity to do just that.

    It feels nice to read a feel good book that offers respite from the dull, grey English winter.

    A great holiday read. Enjoy.

    Wednesday, 6 January 2016

    Second Life - SJ Watson

    photo courtesy:
    For once, the second book is better than the debut.

    SJ Watson's Before I go to Sleep is a much talked about and well read book. I reckon its popularity is more so after its film adaptation that had big names like Colin Firth in it. However, as is the case with first success, the reviews to the second book was not as good as the first one.

    On the contrary, I was a trifle disappointed with the debut work. Perhaps the hype got to me. The book jacket was enthralling - about a woman who recovered her memory each morning only to lose it at the end of the day. But I found that the book jacket was more promising than the story itself.

    However, in the second book, the story seemed very ordinary. But what makes it interesting is the way it has been moulded into a splendid story.


    Julia is worried. She has been raising her sister's son Connor as her own with her surgeon husband. Now her sister wants the boy back. Julia is anxious but then it spirals to another level when she learns of her sister's death in an alleyway in Paris.

    Keen to find out the reason, she then delves into her sister Kate's life with the help of her roommate Anna. Julia discovers her sister's online identity and decides to plunge into the world of online dating to find her sister's murderer.

    Julia enters the dark world of internet relationships and in the process of discovering the murderer, is caught in a complex web of deceit that threatens the tranquility of her domestic life.

    What works:
    • The crisp narrative style. At the outset, we are told of Julia's predicament, reference to her past. Pieces of information are thrown in and the reader gobbles up the morsels in eager anticipation. 
    • The reader is not disappointed. Slowly and steadily a menacing, troubling atmosphere builds up.
    • There is the excitement of something forbidden, the delicious feeling when wrong feels right, the ecstasy and then the after effects.
    • The character of Julia is flawed. She is no perfect wife or mother. She is trying to put things right but ends up right in the middle of it.
    • Although sex is an important element, it is not allowed to rule the story. In other hands, it could have easily turned into erotic fiction or soft porn. I like the sophisticated manner in which it is handled. There are minimal words and the imagination is allowed to do the rest instead of graphic descriptions. Watson has used the tool very skilfully indeed.
    • The suspense is so good as we discover with Julia, the identity of her sister's murderer. The last 100 pages are a delight and like others, I ended up turning the last page in a bid to find out more. However, I loved the way she ended the story, leaving the reader to work it out.
    So there is sex, suspense and a story - great combination.

    What doesn't:
    • It worked very well for me. However I haven't read 50 shades of grey. For those who have, they may not find it as original or as good. 

    Sunday, 3 January 2016

    The Chosen Dead - M R Hall

    A great read reminsicient of a Robin Cook thriller.

    My first read of 2016 and Hall's book was such a pleasure to delve in. As already stated, Hall is getting to be a favourite now and I look forward to reading him with great anticipation.

    Of the three books, each has been better than the last. This one however is the prequel to the Burning. Having read Burning before this, I had an idea of how events turn out in Jenny's personal life therefore no suspense there.

    However, the plot that finds Jenny Cooper in the midst is a complex story about Biological weapons.


    Jenny Cooper is called in to investigate into an apparent suicide. However, when her husband calls her for help when a friend's little girl, mysteriously falls ill and dies, Cooper begins to sense a connection between the two.

    What she unravels is a dark secret that connects the dusty dunes of present day Africa to a decades old murder in the United States.

    People are killed and Cooper is soon hot on the trail. In the process of uncovering the truth, she ends up compromising her personal life, more importantly the life of those dear to her.

    What works:

    • I remember reading Robin Cook as a teenage and this bore a stark resemblance to it. However, Hall has a distinct way of approaching his plots. Where Cook tends to get too technical with subject matter, Hall writes for an audience that are non-medics and simplifies complex medical concepts into readable terms.
    • The characters. Cooper's flawed, drug-dependent character is so real. I love the character and can identify with it. Also her relationship with David and Alison is quite different to other stable relationships of other who "dunnit" protagnists.
    • The plot. It is always a seemingly open and shut case but invariably takes a sinister turn. It is racy, intelligent and full of action. Ticks all boxes for me really.
    What doesn't:

    Hall's books are beginning to have a predicatable frame. But that for me is familiarity. I like to sit back, start with an outline that I know will pan out into a plot with surprises galore.

    It works for me therefore it wouldn't be fair to put it under the "what doesn't" section. 

    Hall's books are interesting, racy and read well. 

    A great set of ingredients for a superb read.