Monday, 27 June 2016

The Italian Girl - Lucinda Riley

An interesting peek into the world of Opera.

I came across Lucinda Riley in a very strange manner. Her name was scribbled across the last page of a Susan Howatch book that I finished. The dark letters on the yellowed page said something. Perhaps the previous reader had jotted down Riley as the writer to check out? So yes, Riley's name seared into into my memory. Her popularity hit me, when her books lined up my shelves of my public library. 

I picked this one for its interesting backstory. Apparently, this book had first come out years ago, as one of her  earlier works. I reckon she was not that popular then. But then as her fame caught on, her publishers thought packaging her earlier novel in a new cover might be a sound idea. What was called Aria, was then repackaged as The Italian Girl which was welcomed by her readers. 

Rosanna is a girl with gift - her magical voice. Helping her parents in their cafe, Rosanna's gifts go unnoticed except for her brother Luca. One day, Roberto Rossini, the charismatic opera singer hears Rosanna sing and urges her to take lessons. Rosanna who has lost her heart to him, agrees. She finds an ally in Luca and together they embark on a journey that takes her to the heart of the glittering world of Opera.

The story takes the reader through the streets of Naples, to Milan tracing the highs and lows of its characters as they balance fame, emotions and secrets in their lives.

What works:
  • Atmospheric detail. Riley brought Italy alive in my mind. I could smell the warm dough, the tomatoes and the wafting smell of the risotto. The smells and sounds of Italy are present in the descriptions and the dialogues and that to me was one of the highlights of the story.
  • The characters. They are strong yet flawed in their decision making. I loved Abi and Luca's story as it ran through the main thread of Roberto and Rossanna. I also liked the way at each stage how the character flaws moved the story forward, an important learning curve for a student like me.
  • The writing. It is smooth and fluid. There is not much depth to the story, but it keeps you engaged and makes you want to know what happens next.
  • I particularly loved the letter writing device which has been used very well to narrate the story. 
What doesn't:
  • It is a tearjerker and a romantic story. There are moments when the plot seems to drag and becomes predictable. At a point it is so easy to predict how the story will take a turn with the twist that is coming, pulling the protagonists apart.
The writing though good is not very profound or hopes attempt anything literary. It is a fairly average story, but what makes it different is its Italian and opera setting and the way in which Riley gets her characters to act - a character driven story through and through.

An enjoyable read. Recommended.

When Religion became a talking point...

The other day while waiting for Cheeky at the school gates, her class teacher walked up to me.

"We are learning about Hinduism this term. If you can come in and talk to us about being a Hindu, it will be great."

I was a bit sceptical. Really? Although a practising Hindu, was I devout enough to talk about religion and engage a bunch of restless 5-year-olds? 

But while all this was going in my head, all that came out was "OK".

"Great. Our next lesson is on Tuesday. See you in your traditional attire then!" She walked off.

What? Wait, you never told me about turning up in a sari, my head screamed.

But the commitment was made and as I walked back, my brain was working on how best to handle this.

It was easy to see why I was the obvious choice; there were hardly any Hindu families in the school. Religion for us, is more like cultural identity rather than a strict code of conduct. Gosh, I did not even know the the dictates of Hindu religion! Will I be able to tell them enough to satisfy their curiosity and yet educate them?

Later, one night, I was watching Bajirao Mastani an Indian period film about a Hindu Brahmin-warrior and a Muslim princess. The autonomy of religion in that era and its intervention at every point seemed such an alien concept in this day and age. Today we lead a more individualistic lifestyles where religion is woven loosely around the daily fabric of our lives.

My values and practices stem from a default part of growing up in a Hindu household. But what seemed natural and effortless for P and I, is not the case for our kids. Growing up in the West, they do not have the exposure enjoyed by their Indian counterparts. They did not have the default understanding of who and why, we are the way we are. 

Living in an non-Asian community, we were never particular about celebrating festivals when the kids were babies. But then as they grew older, it became obvious they needed Indian cultural education. Cheeky had to understand Christmas and Easter were not the only two occasions to be celebrated. Our Indian festivals spread out across the year, each customised with its own story, food and way of celebration.

 P and I did not want them to miss out on what we had as kids. So began our Diwali and Navaratri festivities. The celebrations are on a very small scale but at least it offers them a sense of their unique cultural identity. 

"Bommai Golu" - Doll Display at our home -
A traditional way of celebrating Navratri in Tamil Brahmin households
So with these thoughts swimming in my head, I turned up at the school on the day - complete with sari, jewellery and bangles. Feeling terribly overdressed, I settled in the chair as the kids looked up to me with dazzling eyes.

As I began, the kids hung onto every word - utterly fascinated by the things I had brought along - a pooja thali (plate), lamp, Bhagwad Geeta book, images of gods and goddesses. They were awestruck by the fact that we had so many Gods and a variety of food options.

The talk was rounded off by a rapid fire Q&A: How can one become a Hindu? Where do you find Hindus generally? Why do you eat with your hands? How does it affect your lifestyle? were some of the googlies that came hurling at me.

I answered them with candour and humour, impressed at their grasp of religion and its concept. The afternoon whizzed by and soon it was time to wind up. Cheeky and I sang some shlokas (bhajans), signalling a musical end to the session.

The next day, the parents stopped by to say their kids came home excited, eager to show off their newly acquired knowledge!

Phew! Not bad for someone who prefers wielding her pen instead of her voice!

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Amy Snow - Tracy Rees

photo courtesy:
A interesting quest, although meanders a bit.

Apparently the book was the winner of "Search for a bestseller" by Richard and Judy. I admit the high profile nature of the book was a major draw.

The story is good and the writing even better. However, the story drags in places, so much that I put down and finished another book before resuming it and getting to the end.

That said, though boring in places, the last hundred pages really pick up pace and the threads neatly untangle themselves, rounding it off to a satisfactory read.


Amy was discovered as a baby, on a blanket of snow and that is how she gets her second name. She is rescued by a girl called Aurelia who becomes her shield and benefactor in the face of a victorian society and its conventions.

However, when Aurelia dies young, Amy is given a set of letters which embarks her on a journey. Not used to facing the world alone, the road takes on her own trip to self discovery and identity.

She is to follow a trail of letters and though it is demanding and at times inconvienient, Amy realises that she never really knew Aurelia despite being her close companion. At one point, she has to decide if the quest is really worth pursuing at the cost of her own happiness.

Is Aurelia really hiding something from her or is Amy going on a wild goose chase?

What works:

Atmospheric. Rees evokes the period well. The language, the customs and the mannerisms of the Victorian society are impressive. I just loved the description of the house and the way they lived in those times. Rees' story shows good research and builds up a good atmosphere for the story.

Character. Amy Snow is this girl who has grown up amid hatred yet vulnerable when facing the world. The journey is also an exercise in making her independent and self reliant, which is shown quite well. However, my favourite is Mrs Riverthorpe - a fiery unconventional lady with style.

Plot: The premise is really interesting. The story kicks off with some beautiful description and moves forward. Her interaction with characters and how they help her in her quest is also a good device.

What doesn't:
  • The same language that is so beautiful at the outset tends to bring down the story a bit. Her confusion seems to be dragged out a bit and gets boring.
But then the last 100 pages make up for the slack pace and the build up to the suspense is well done too. Over all, a well written read, an interesting debut, reminiscent of Kate Morton kind of stories.

The Truth About Melody Browne - Lisa Jewell

Jewell's Melody is very memorable indeed.

I like Jewell's style, the way she spins out a story from the crux turning it outward until the tapestry is a round, complete, whole.

I avoided reading this book for a long time, for it sounded too depressing. But now I am glad to have read it. Jewell's stories are set in unhappy circumstances but somehow her protagnists walk from the darkness to light and despite facing unsavoury truths in the way, they manage to end in happy-ever-after stories.

While this may sound boringly predicatable or "chick lit" to some, I enjoyed reading it and that too in two sittings! It is easy to see why Jewell books are so eagerly waited for.


Melody Browne has lost her memory, although she is not aware of it. For eighteen years, she has been living a lie and a past that she is not happy about. Then |one day, she goes to a hypnotist's show and then the past comes back to her in fragments. Her mind starts throwing random images and Melody then starts on a journey that takes her to a past that points towards a very different future. Will she be able to reconcile with her past? Is she ready for what it brings in its wake?

What works:
  • Narrative. What a smooth narrative, love her turn of phrase especially the line about parents.
Parents, were the linchpin of normality. Parents, even distracted, slightly ambivalent parents, acted like a strainer through which life got poured. They were there, in essence, to catch the lumpy bits. Without a parent, life felt oblique and directionless. Without a parent, the world was too close for comfort.
  • Characters. Loved Melody as a 5 year old and then 9 year old. Her thoughts and actions are very well conveyed. Makes your heart go out for the girl.
  • Structure: Love the way the story moves out from a critical juncture to the introduction and then forward. It is an interesting style that hooks the reader from the start and then keeps on dangling the reader teasing her to read more till it gets to the end.
  • Plot: Jewell's plots are so bizzare. I remember the one about the hoarder and then about the sperm donor story, they are such weird plots but with her deft handling, it sounded so normal. Even in this story, the thought of a commune sounded preposterous and it is amazing how her characters are so level headed even in the situations she places them in. Actually, it sounds a bit fanciful, but you have no choice but to follow it. Such is her arresting style.
What doesn't:
  • As mentioned, it is hard to image that though all of this happens to Melody, she is rational and raises a sane, well settled kid. But hey, we all like neatly tied in stories even if they are escapist.
  • At times, the story seems to go off on a tangent, but then it gets back on track and the narrative that flits between the past and the present keeps up the suspense and the unravelling of the story very well
A surprisingly good read from Jewell. Recommended.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Where the River parts - Radhika Swarup

A compact read set against the backdrop of Partition.

Talk about partition and what comes to mind is Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan. The book which has all the gore and the violence of the incident is said to be one of THE defining books on partition. I did not enjoy it. Too bloody and disturbing for me. Therefore when this book was introduced with partition as its focal point, I was sceptical.

I was glad to read that this one takes off from partition and traces the impact of its characters through generations. Hmm..sounded interesting. I love sagas.

I read about Radhika Swarup from an interview on The Asian Writer and liked the way she talked about  her book. The premise was interesting and the writer sounded fresh. Besides, I was curious to learn about my literary namesake's story as the author pointed out during a brief interaction!

Thanks to Netgalley, I got the chance to read the copy in return for a review.


Asha is teenager full of life and love. She loves sharing with her best friend, Nargis a Muslim and is in love with the friend's brother Firoze. However, her life goes haywire after the country is divided and she has to make her own way in the world. She carries the scars of the  incident but moves on with life. However, decades later, that buried past comes back in the most unexpected manner. Past love and present prejudices clash. Asha is caught between confronting hatred and accepting love. Will she make the  right choice?

What works:
  • The period feel. I liked the way the pre-partition era atmosphere was described. Full of vivid descriptions and smells. The film song, the marriage song add to the beauty of a bygone era.
  • The characters. The characters are well etched, they sound authentic and are distinct. My favourite character was Om. The way he was described was very different to the way he acted. I loved the way his character was played out.
  • The scenes. There are some really good scenes in the book. My favourite (without giving away the story) is the scene in the second half where prejudices and ideologies clash. The other one was the restaurant scene between Asha and Om.
  • I also liked the way Swarup shows how partition instills a cascading effect of hatred in the next generation. People who experienced it firsthand are much more forgiving than the ones who have grown up hearing the horror stories.
  • Structure: The story flows very well, and the scenes are carefully placed aiding and not hindering the flow. The characters and scenes are positioned very well and the narrative does not deviate from the path. 
  • There were some evocative lines that instantly ignite an image. 
"Punjabi smells infiltrated the air".

It sums up Delhi post partition so well. Besides, there are lines that sum up the identity of Delhi city as refugees poured in.

 "It was a city as much of plenty as it was of gnawing want and one where fortunes were made, pasts re imagined and spirits irretrievably broken."
  • Very poignant and shows an intrinsic love for the city. 
The writing is excellent and captures the era and the changing nature of the refugee city so well.

What doesn't:
  • The characters could have been more complex and perhaps could have been given more shades of grey but then this is a debut novel and I can see the attempt to keep it taut and effective. 
  • The story at one point seems to rush through decades. But then, I realised, it was making way for another important point in the story. 
Reading it reminded me of Buniyaad (a throwback to my DD days) with a similar theme and Punjabi characters. But then that is were the  similarity ends, for this story is clearly designed for the contemporary reader with its taut structure and action-oriented plot.

I would have preferred a print version instead of scrolling down pages on the tablet, but hey that is just the "dated" me complaining!

Overall, the voice is new and the writing style, terse yet evocative. Will be watching out for more from this author.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

It feels good to see your name in print!

Writer's Ezine is a great place for budding and established writers. It not only offers a platform for budding writers but also offers challenges the skills of its regular contributors.

The online magazine which disappeared a few months back has now arrived in its new avataar as a quarterly. As is the practice, a prompt - an image - was introduced to invite responses and  then published if deemed worthy of merit.

The image was:

My response to it was in the form of a poem. The poem was Goodbye My Love, which talks about the mother hugging the child one last time before seeing her off to a better future without her.

Few days back I got a line saying they were happy to publish it and soon enough, the online edition went live. Here is the link:

I also got some interesting responses. Family were quite appreciative as usual but one of my friends texted me saying she couldn't fathom why I had such a heavy and a dark vision. She began worrying about my state of mind and was relieved to hear it was actually a response to a prompt and not the output of any dark, repressed secret!

Nonetheless, a writer thrives on appreciation and publication of this poem has reiterated that I have scope and that my writing has an audience.

That is enough for me to soldier on till the next milestone.

Thanks Arti, of WE again!

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Key to It All - Joanna Rees

photo courtesy:
An intriguing plot that falls a bit short.

I have come across some of Rees' previous novels and therefore her name was not a new one. But now that she has branched out on her own, this novel with its intriguing premise and the arresting jacket were an irrestible combination.

A quick search took me to her blog. She is good and I remember she used to collaborate with her husband before and produced a sizeable number of books. Somehow, I never got the chance to read them, but it was enough to build that familiarity that I like to have, with the author before delving into their book.

Since the outline is my kind of story, I was keen to dig my heels into this one and find out if it delivered the goods.


Five people get a key that promises to change their lives forever. It is filled with opportunity and luxury. So what happens when they go for it? Do they get what they want or does the key bring out their darkest secrets forcing them out their comfort zones, bringing them face to face to confront horrible truths?

What works:
  • The plot. The premise is interesting enough to demand attention and the characters are settled in such exotic locations - Brazil and Japan. The armchair traveller in me was super excited and really enjoyed the ride.
  • The narrative. It flows smoothly and engages the reader well. After a point, it felt like being on a roller coaster ride. The story got so good, that it was hard not to keep turning pages to work out the possible connection.
  • The build up was good and the suspense even better. It shows the author's knack of taking separate threads of narrative and blending them into one with a good suspense. Wow, that bit was really good and a nod to the author's talent.
What doesn't:
  • The story is a bit slow to get into. The initial bit where the characters are first introduced is a bit slow. I get it, it is important to know them first to find out what happens to them, but even so, it was boring. 
  • There were some bits which were quite thrilling like for the instance when Africa-working Christian ends up in South America and meets Julia. I also liked the part when Kamiko is on a chase to locate the source. Some parts are really interesting to read, but there are also moments where it drags a bit. The thrill factor is not consistent.
  • Also it is easy to see what Rees is trying to do - how the key can change people and affect their personas. But some parts seemed a bit abrupt and implausible. The explanations did not quite justify to this reader.
Overall, this reminded of one Jeffrey's archers better paced earlier novels. This one has its drawbacks and lacks the finesse of the master storyteller in his heyday but nonetheless, a good plot which is worth the time spent.