Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Stories In Art

When writing presents art in different shades...

courtesy:tell-a-tale.com

Some time back, I came across a contest inviting entries for a unique competition. It was organised by an India based website specialising in the joy of stories. They were celebrating World Art Day and were looking for stories based on art. I loved the idea. Thinking about a painting and writing a story on it sounded right up my alley. It really tickled my imagination and I got down to scribble.

Imagine my excitement when I learnt it made it to the top slot! Here is the link to the story:

https://www.tell-a-tale.com/11409-2/

It was amazing to read other entries interpret paintings for their stories. It was an excellent example of how imagination can transform a painting. Kudos to all the shortlisted entries.  You can read the other entries here:

https://www.tell-a-tale.com/


Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Ring out the Old, Ring in the New....

Three years ago, I did a post on Cheeky starting school. 

Now, as I kissed my second born good luck at the school gate, it felt different. Walking back, I was wondering how the same experience could elicit contrasting emotions. 

It was hard with Cheeky, I admit. There was whole newness to it. The school, the kids in her class, the education system. How will she cope? Will they make it easy for her?

But this time round, there is a sense of melancholy coupled with excitement. There is sadness that a phase of childhood is lost forever, but there is also elation. School life has its share of adventure, after all.  

When Cheeky started at school, the "babyness" continued with Aadi. First toddler and then preschool  groups, park visits and soft play sojourns during the day, the small kid feeling was still prevalent. Not anymore. 


photo courtesy:silicon valley academy

On the other hand, there is a delightful absence of apprehension. Aadi has been coming on school runs ever since Cheeky started three years ago. The benefit of acquaintance with the staff, playground and older kids has been handy, to say the least.

There is definite comfort in knowing that the path my boy is going to tread has been "tried and tested", thanks to his older sibling. It has resulted in such a smooth transition to school that my heart swelled with joy instead of tears, to see him march off into this nurturing environment.

On a personal front, maternal feelings aside, there is a quiet sense of liberation. As my baby embarks on his academic journey, time feels right to reclaim my individuality and space. There is a sense of loss, yet an undeniable feeling of the start of something new.

Coleridge's poem "Ring out the old, Ring in the new" comes to mind with some modification:

Ring out the old, ring in the new, 

Look ahead, there's so much to do;

Letting go of the past how you

let in a morrow, full of adventures anew.

Letting go is so much about letting in too, isn't it?

The Smile of Murugan - Michael Wood

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
An armchair journey to the temples of South India.

The timing couldn't have been better. I picked up this book after a visit to a small town in Tamil Nadu. This book took me down the south visiting all the major temples lined with an entertaining and enlightening narrative .

In India temple visiting is not only for religious purposes, it is a form of tourism, a weekend getaway. Having been on temple visits and it is amazing how religion and tourism come together to make for a great experience.

Gist:

Wood is friends with a religious family in the deep south India. He visits them and is privy to the happenings in the family. As per an astrologer's prediction, Wood will come back to make a pilgrimage. The prophecy comes true and Wood finds himself making a journey to some famous temples, while learning about the gods and goddesses .

What works:
  • The narrative is so smooth and Wood has an engaging style. The concept is not something a random reader can easily relate to, but Wood makes the information accessible and interesting.
  • There is a wealth of information on how people live in small towns. It has universal resonance to it. It is fascinating how he tracks the life of this family and through them provides an insight into how small town people live, their perspective and a changing landscape of life in big city.
What doesn't:
  • Since the subject matter is all about temples, the information tends to get a bit much and sags a bit in the middle. 
By mixing his own story with that of the family, Wood really weaves an interesting travelogue. Despite the fact that it is dated (it was written in the 90s) there is a relevance to it. After all the temples have been there for centuries and twenty years later, water problem in Madras is still as acute as stated in the book.

If you like reading about India, this book provides an engaging insight. Recommended.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Girlfriend - Michelle Frances

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
Captivating suspense that keeps you hooked till the end.

I received this book from the blue spine writing blog's crime and thriller club in return for an honest review. Thriller is one of my favourite genres - reason being there is more analysis and insight than an entire psychology textbook put together!

As for this one, I read up on the author and it said the writer has worked in television. It helped - I love TV dramas, although the storytelling in that medium is quite different to the printed page, it built up good expectations about this book.

The story with its crisp sentences on the jacket sounded ominous and terribly intriguing.

Gist:

Laura, a TV producer feels blessed. With a smart son, long marriage and a successful career, she has it all - until Cherry, a street savvy girl walks into her life. Daniel, her son has taken to Cherry and Laura is eager to find out more about her. The only hassle is - she doesn't like her and soon that acquaintance turns poisonous liason.

What works:
  • The plot is seemingly ordinary. I mean how often do we come across tiffs between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. But with some clever tweaks and justifications, the story is packaged in a new light.
  • The crucial thing about a thriller is that pace is very important. It cannot afford to slag and billow out. The pace here is taut and the writer does a very good job with structure. The backgrounds are quickly covered in the first few pages and then story skillfully pans out.
  • The central characters are very believable. You can see how they act the way they do and the situations created by their behaviour.
  • I  also liked the ending. Despite the fact that the ending was predictable Frances added a nice little twist to it. I was wondering, having built it up, how was she going to handle it. But have to hand it to her, that was really well done.
  • There were some scenes that were so visual and kept lingering in my mind's eye.  I loved the camaraderie between Isabella and Laura. Also the one in France, when Cherry spends the weekend with them. Loved it! 
What doesn't:

  • Nothing really. It is a very well told story. Appealed to the thriller aficionado in me.
Very easy to see it as a TV drama or a film.







The Peshwa - Ram Sivashankaran

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A great read about a lesser known historical character.

Bajirao came out of forgotten archives thanks to the Hindi film Bajirao Mastani. I loved the movie - the story and the valour of the Maratha hero is impressive. It left me a bit surprised too; he never featured in my history books in school unlike the more famous Shivaji or Prithviraj Chauhan.

I started looking around for books on the Peshwa and chanced upon this one. I had not heard of the book or the author before, but loved the way it was presented. the synopsis sounded good and the reviews helped it as well.

Amazon seemed to provide access to the copy and I looked forward to reading it with great anticipation. It was a relief that it satiated my curiosity and expectations from the novel.

Gist:

The story starts with introducing the ongoing maratha tryst with the Mughal dynasty.

The Peshwa in the Maratha hierarchy is considered to be the right hand man of the Emperor offering him military and emotional support.

The original Peshwa - Balaji Vishwanatha Bhat, is the fierce Maratha warrior who helps Shahu, the grandson of Shivaji to rescue his mother from Mughal custody. His son, Bajirao a young lad accompanies him on the trip, keen to imbibe his father's qualities. Later, the experience holds him in good stead as he moves on to take over the reins of the kingdom as a Peshwa.

What works:
  • The narrative is smooth and detailed. The introductory chapter takes you right in the middle of action. 
  • The character of the Peshwa is beautifully developed through a series of events.
  • The change of guard from one Peshwa to another is also well presented.
  • It was easier to see how the movie Bajirao Mastani took pieces of Bajirao's life to fit the movie. It made sense of many scenes which seemed a bit odd in the film. Like for the instance, it explains how a close aide betrayed him by planning to take over in a coup and had to be killed in order to stop him. This doesn't prevent Bajirao from displaying love and affection towards the slain aide's family and treat them as his own.
What doesn't:
  • The very detail that gives such depth to the story can bog it down sometimes. There are passages which offer a lot of information - at the cost of affecting the pace of the narrative.
Overall, a very original story about a such an underrated character. 

Sunday, 23 July 2017

A Forgotten Affair - Kanchana Banerjee

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
breezy romance thriller with a woman centric plot.

My India trip was filled with treats this time around. I had a set of books waiting for me at home - a prize I had won in a competition. Banerjee's book was part of the set and came as an interesting well structured read.

Gist:

Sagarika loses her memory in an accident - that is what the doctors tell her when she wakes up and finds her husband by her side. She tries to piece things together but finds it deeplyunsettling. There are some triggers that nag her consciousness: a scent, a word that fills her wit inexplicable emotions. Her husband waits on her hand and foot and yet she feels uncomfortable around him. Why? She struggles to find out her past, so far away from home, where her husband whisks her away to convalesce.

What works:
  • The characters. Sagarika and Rishab are well etched. Their behaviour are in sync with their back stories. 
  • Also the introductory chapters - they are swift, set the scene well and pull the reader straight in.
  • The story moves at a good pace. Sagarika's struggle to piece together her life, as she takes the reader along with her is a fascinating journey.
  • Although the cover jacket screams romance, there is suspense and intrigue that keeps the story moving.
  • The story is structured well and the narrative strong and smooth.
What doesn't:
  • Loved the pace of the story and also the way Banerjee chose to end the story. However, the the finale or the showdown seemed a bit abrupt. The build up was so good that the reader goes in expecting action and ends up feeling a bit shortchanged. 
  • It would have been great to more about the peripheral characters, Deepa and Amrita. They were interesting personas and a subplot would have done them more justice.
A fast track read, good for that rainy day weekend.






Wednesday, 19 July 2017

No Safe Zone - Adite Banerjie

photo courtesy: goodreads.com
A refreshing story in a marketplace dominated by mythological fiction.

Every time I visit India, a favourite hobby is to scan the local bookshop shelves to look for latest releases. Of late, all that seems available is mythological fiction. There is a rich source of characters in Indian mythology and it is fascinating how talented writers give them a contemporary voice and perspective. However, it does leave you wishing other genres exerted their influence too.

I won this book as part of a competition hosted by the author . It was a lovely surprise to receive this signed copy and an absolute delight to read the book.

It reiterated the fact that Indian writing does not need to be diasporic or booker prize type material. It can have a mass market appeal and offer its own level of enjoyment and adventure.

Gist:

Qiara Rana comes from London after her NGO is in trouble for receiving money through a fraudulent patron. She comes to New Delhi and finds herself framed as a murder suspect. Chance also brings her face to face with her ex boyfriend, the reason why she left Delhi all those years ago. Events bring them together as they get on a dangerous trail that carries a curious link to their past.

What works:
  • The narrative is compelling and sucks one in right from the beginning. It races through from the first line. 
  • The story takes the reader to Delhi, and to the interiors of Rajasthan. It is great to read a thriller based on an Indian city rather than European or American ones. The fast paced action never dulls and is a rollercoaster read.
  • The book goes on to show how great stories can be based in the Indian setting. As a lover of Indian fiction, this story offers the same quality of the enjoyment and adventure of any English thriller. 
What doesn't:
  • The books claims to be a romance thriller and it delivers. I only wished the characters' backstories were fleshed out better. There are some great subplots there and they could have been developed offering a more holistic view of the story. But I reckon they would have digressed from plot and the onus here seems to be a tight grip on the narrative.
There is action and romance and somehow at times feels a tad filmy. Perhaps because of the romance element. But for me it works well as a thriller too. It is a well written story and a welcome read in an era where mythological fiction rules the roost.

Overall, a good, fast track read.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Leicesterwrites - A collection of diverse ideas


It is a fantastic feeling when a secret burning desire manifests into reality.

It happened with me last week, when I attended the book launch of a short story anthology that carried my story in it.

I had submitted the story as part of the Leicesterwrites competition and was thrilled to have made the longlist. I had been writing stories only for a year and therefore imagine my delight to have learned that. 

Attending the launch was a beautiful experience. It was humbling to meet other like minded souls some of who, have been writing for years. They read their stories and it was amazing to watch how diverse and imaginative their ideas were.

The judges and the organiser of the competition Farhana Shaikh, talked about the judging process and how they filtered through the entries to select the longlist and the winners. It was amazing to hear what they looked for in a short story and tips to write a good one.

I remember how as an undergraduate, we learned about the short story form as part of our course. It was great to be able to recall them as a short story writer. As a 17 year old, I never thought that one day, I would be looking at a short story with my name under it.

Today, looking at it, it feels as though it was always meant to be. 

And the journey has just begun.

Whatever You Love - Louise Doughty

A brutally emotional story.

I love Apple Tree Yard - both the book and the TV series. Doughty's writing style draws you in, her characters have a way of making their way into your head and win your sympathy. Besides, her strong female characters are another reason why I like reading her.

I was keen to find out about Doughty's other books and when this one came by, the premise, like her previous one was really intriguing.

Gist:
Laura's daughter Betty has died in a freak accident while on the way to a class from school. It tracks a distraught mum's frame of mind and while shedding light on her imperfect life, it then takes on a thriller like roller coaster ride to show how she deals with her loss.

What works:
  • The writing is amazing. It is straight and hits bulls eye with the reader. The story starts with Laura's receiving news about her daughter and then traces her life back and forth to her choices and her present life. The writing is razor sharp filled with some great lines.
The lines that resonated with me were: 

We fill our lives to the top of the cup with routine so brimming routine that routine is the whole fabric of life, its meat and material.

Strange, the way little things get to you, the way they slide in like acupuncture needles and like acupuncture needles have disproportionate effects.
  • The characters - Laura, David, Toni are beautifully etched. They live and breathe human frailities and this adds various shades to their personalities and reactions to situations.
  • The narrative - It is quiet and understated. The pace is great and although there is a point when it falters a bit, but it still ends on a spooky note.
What doesn't:
  • The first half moves at a beautiful pace but the second half of the novel is a bit disappointing. It is slow and suddenly does feels a bit disjointed and a let down from the first half.

 But reading Doughty is a pleasure, her dark thriller like stories are beautifully structured and keeps you hooked. Thriller fans will love it.


Friday, 30 June 2017

Tidal Zone - Sarah Moss

photo courtesy: goodreads.com
A slice of life in contemporary society.

Sarah Moss was a new writer to me but a quick search told me of how celebrated a writer she is. I am glad to have had the chance to read this one and have bookmarked her other books too.

Moss is an academic and her book The Tidal Zone reflects that. The book cover is a very compelling and stands out. It was a pleasant surprise to find that its stark, forceful cover matched the writing inside.

Gist:
The story is about a family and how it copes
with the uncertainties of an illness. However it also operates on various other levels: reflections on parenting, academia, the state of our medical services.  There is also a parallel narrative about a cathedral that runs alongside the story.

What works:
  • The style is very different. It doesn't force your attention but it draws you in slowly and resolutely. It forces you to keep going to find out whats going to happen next, even when it bears no traces of a thriller.
  • The characters. Loved the stay at home dad - a very different sort of character. It was great to see a Dad with maternal instincts and Moss does a good job of bringing him to life.
  • I loved the way relationships are portrayed here. The friction between the husband and son and the husband-wife relationship. It also paints sympathetic shades of an overworked doctor's life. As the wife of a GP, I would say the personality sketch is very impressive and spot on. 
  • This is written by an academic who does not bow down to the market formula of a snazzy and attention grabbing narrative. I appreciate that. I haven't read too many books about academia and although this doesn't focus completely about academia, it surely offers a perspective and made for good reading.
  • It is nice to see how Moss has included her knitting hobby by attributing it to one of her characters. Love instances of how the writer's preferences seep into their characters.
What doesn't:
  • The  style though good is taxing at times. Since there is not much happening in terms of plot, it can a bit meandering, wondering where is this all leading to.
  • This is not a plot driven novel but more like a reflection on the times we live in. Those going in expecting some past paced action will be disappointed.
Having said that, the book has some great paragraphs. It is amazing how she captures the fear of parents and the emotional bonding they share with children.

The writing is superb and powerful. I recommend it for that reason alone. 

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Sophie Hannah - Kind of Cruel

An arresting premise, an OK revelation.
photo courtesy:goodreads.com

Hannah's stories always have an compelling premises: a bizarre event that forces the reader to pick it up and stick through right till the end. In this case, the bizaare event is about a family that disappears on christmas day and reappears on boxing day.

Hannah is a good storyteller. She does have a knack of telling a story. What I like is the way she uses the psychological aspect rather than violence to tell the story. A sucker for stories that deal with the workings of the mind, not surprisingly that I was instantly drawn to it.

Gist:


Amber Hewerdine is an insomniac who sees a hypno therapist to sort it out. However, during the session, she blurts out the words, Kind, cruel, Kind of Cruel and she thinks it is because she had read it in the book of a woman, a patient, waiting with her outside. Three hours later, she finds herself arrested for a murder of a Katherine Allen, a woman she had never heard of.


Something else has happened in her family. Years ago, her sister-in-law Jo disappeared with her husband and family on Christmas day and returned on Boxing day with no explanation whatsoever. Amber is the only one who is looking for answers and would not rest till she found out what it was.

 What works:
  • It is almost like watching a spool of thread unravel. A bizarre occurence that has no explanation and then the attempt to make sense of it through logical reasoning and psychological deductions.
  • The character of Amber is so good. A flawed yet a sensible character whose psychological profile is etched out so well. 
  • I had not read any other Spilling book before, therefore the story of Charlie and Simon did not mean much to me. It doesn't matter the personal lives of the detectives are in the background anyway.
What doesn't:
  • It is not easy reading. The beginning sucks you in, but then the psychological analysis can be a bit obtuse, with random explanations that seem to be going nowhere, demanding a lot of focus from the reader. 
  • There was a point where there was so much analysis about the family disappearance and then about Amber's friend's murder that it really got a bit much. 
I remember reading Hannah's Vistors and other stories and enjoying it. This one is an OK read. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Restless - William Boyd

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A spy story with a woman protagnist at the heart of the story.

Now I am thinking what I mean by that. Well, for me, spy stories usually mean Fleming's Bond stories or the Le Carre's Smiley stories. I am trying to recall a story that has a woman as the protagnist and I struggling to remember one.

I came across this book at the library and loved the cover. The premsied appealed to my feminist instincts but for some reason I did not pick it up. Later, when I went looking for the copy it was gone. It was a bit annoying. The woman in the red overcoat was really intriguing and I was desperate to read her story. 

Months later, I happened to see the copy again. Believe me, there is nothing more exciting than chancing upon a book that you have always wanted. It is a delicious victorious feeling to savoured for a long time. It filled me with a sense of achievement the whole day.

Now, all I had to do was to escape to some quiet and get started:

Gist:

Ruth Gilmartin is a 30 something single mother trying to finish her Phd, while looking after her 5-year old-boy and her mother in Oxfordshire. As an English teacher she ekes out a living teaching foreign students. However, things get interesting when she finds her mother acting strangely and claims to fear for her life. Things get more interested when her mum reveals she had another identity as Eva Delectorskaya, a spy recruited in the World War. For some reason her past was catching up with her but she needed her daughter's help this time, to sort it out once for all.

What works:
  • The plot flows so smoothly. Eva tells her story in her own words whereas Ruth's story is told in third person. 
  • The pace is flawless. There is nothing dramatic about it, yet it is compelling, hooking the reader to keep moving to find out what is going to happen next.
  • Loved the characters. Eva the Russian girl who just chanced into becoming a spy, Ruth placed in the modern way world, rubbishing the thought of a spy. 
  • The plot is so effortless and shows off the writer's panache in creating such a believable world.
What doesn't:
  • There was a portion in Ruth's life which left me a bit confused. Perhaps it was to set the comparison between hers and Eva's life. It stuck out a bit for me.
  •  The action in the story is very subtle and does not have the drama of a Bond film. No fancy chases. But I guess that is what made this such an enjoyable read.
Loved the book. A good, rollicking read.

Braided Ball


I have been knitting on and off for the last 6 years. However, all I managed to do is blankets for my kids: first as babies and scarves when they grew older. Now I decided to get a bit ambitious and explore other easy projects.


I came across this braided ball pattern on ravelry and loved the challenge. Apparently, it takes hours to make it (it took me days). Anyway, what I liked about this was that, it did not require expertise as much as logical application of how to place the strips so they don't look like a mess.

It was really an interesting challenge. The strips were regular stockinette stitch. I was not very good at it and the strips were a great practice. I used up my leftover yarn and working with so many colours felt therapeutic.

Here is the picture to give you the inspiration: 


I got the pattern from ravelry but this video really helped me get it right.

Cheryl's Brunette's video on how to get it right..was really helpful. Thanks Cheryl!
`
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZA_kgR9bGc













Saturday, 27 May 2017

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A captivating story that packs a punch.

Post 9/11 made Asians most particularly Muslims a very unpopular face in the West. The Twin Tower attacks were shown time and again and reinforced a growing antipathy for the Muslim community as a perpetrator also rose. It doesn't help that with each terrorist attack, it is becoming more deepseated. This where the book comes into relevance. This was one of the first books that I read projecting the perpetrator as a victim.

I read this book sometime back but saw its film adaptation recently. I liked the book better. The book is clear and focussed whereas the movie in an attempt to make it more palatable for the viewing public. It digresses and misses the point.

Gist:

It is a monologue where Changez Khan does all the talking. The opening scene is that he is met by a journalist who wants to know if Khan is a fundamentalist and Khan then tells him his story.

What works:
  • I have always thought monologue to be a difficult medium to use but Hamid employs it to his advantage here.
  • It sheds light on Changez Khan and on the events as they unfold.
  • The narrative. It shows off a well spoken considerate man, a victim of circumstances but who takes responsibility for his actions.
  • The structure. The pacing is good and keeps the reader on her toes till the end.
  • The length. Just the right length to finish in one sittting, but cuts no corner in doing so.
What doesn't:
  • Nothing really. A well packaged read.
Man booker nominated books can be a bit heavy and boring. This one is not. It is fast paced, offers great insight and is relevant in this terrorist ridden times.

Apparently the book made another appearance as a film tie-in version. The screenplay was done by Hamid too. However, I wouldn't bother with it. The original version is the best.

A Spy By Nature - Charles Cumming

goodreads.com
The Making of a Spy

Although I am not much into spy stories, John Le Carre and now Charles Cumming are getting me into it. I loved watching TV and film adaptations of Night Manager and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Somehow watching them seemed more interesting than reading them. I remember reading a Colder War before and loved Cumming's writing style.

Gist:

Alec Milius is stuck in an unhappy job when out of the blue, a family friend suggests at a dinner party if he would be interested in joining the foreign office. Alec agrees to go for it. He is looking forward to a new direction, a new chapter in life. He is intrigued by the idea of becoming a spy. However, it doesn't go the way he planned.

What works:

  • The writing style is in keeping with the genre. Simple, straightforward dialogue that pushes the plot forward.
  • The protagnist. Alec is a convincing character. His confusions, his mindset are in sync with the way he acts.
What doesn't:
  • The pace is racy in the first half but towards the second half, it slackens a bit.
Overall, an ok read.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Gold - Chris Cleave

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A story about athletes and what it takes to be a winner.

I remember watching the London Olympics and thinking what must be going through these cyclists' minds - how do they prepare themselves to be such high class performers. Surely there must be interesting stories behind it. This book satisfied my curiosity.

I first heard of Cleave when I received his latest book for review. It was a wartime novel but his writing style was really striking. I was keen to find out what else he had written and I saw this book. The story had the same compelling narrative and banter that characterised his other novel.

But I liked this more, maybe because it was in the now and the events were something I had heard about and read in the media.

Gist:

Zoe Castle and Kate Argyll are two world class cyclists keen to make their mark on the cycling track. Best of friends, rivals, their relationship has its set of ups and downs until they reach the crucial point in their careers - London Olympics. Will they surmount their personal obstacles to achieve their dream? The story tells us all about it and much more.

What works:

  • Cleave gets into the psyche of a world class athlete so well. How they prepare themselves physically, psychologically - it truly gives the reader an insight. 
  • The narrative. Cleave has a very unusual way of narrating a story. It moves back and forth in time, how the athletes first came to the programme as amateurs and then 10 years later when they are at the peak of their careers, looking for that photo finish that the world will remember them for. 
  • The central characters of Zoe and Kate are beautifully presented. The conventional Kate and the radical Zoe are beautifully etched out. Also the subplot of Sophie is so heart rendering.
What doesn't:
  • I found Cleave's writing style striking yet not when I first started reading him. I recall being put off with his dry way of narrating events.  But the style grows on you. As the story picked up pace, racing to the pivotal scene, the style is actually why the story sounds so good.
A great read about athletes' lives and the sacrifices they make to stand on the podium. But what I also liked was the holistic experience of it. After the story ended, my copy had an author's note that explained his research into the athletes' lives and into children afflicted by life threatening diseases. There is also a diary about his cycling tryst on a cold morning that allows him the feel of what it is to cycle down the lane.

For me the note and the diary, were valuable add ons, providing a well rounded feel of how the story took root. Cleave does that with his latest novel, Everyone Brave is Forgiven. That is the kind of thing that really clicks for me - when the author shares his vision with the reader. Priceless.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Angel Tree - Lucinda Riley

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A multi generational story about family secrets and its consequences.

I picked it up after Shriver's Mandibles and this was such an undemanding one! I love Riley's writing. It is easy going and yet compelling. Plot driven stories with some character development, it is essentially an escapist read.

Riley has been writing for decades but for some reason her old books are now being packaged decades after they they were published under a different name. For me, she is new and therefore it is was interesting to read the footnote to see how she redeveloped the story and added new dimension. However, those who may have read her old ones may want to be sure they know which one they are reading.

Apparently, this book which was published in the 1990s called Not Quite an Angel under the name Lucinda Edmonds. I have to admit though that the cover and the title are eye catching. 

Gist:

Greta, a stage performer finds herself pregnant during wartime and stuck with raising her child alone. She seeks stability and security and finds that in a marriage to an older man at the Marchmont house.

Francesca, or Cheska Hammond is popular child star. Right from a young age, Greta steers her into the glamour world. Away from Marchmont House and loving the arclights, Cheska is now ready to make the transition into an actress. Greta is her greatest ally but when teenage rebellion rears its head, Cheska pays a heavy price for it.

Ava Marchmont, is the complete opposite of her mum, Cheska. Raised away from her mother, she is happy, stable and content. Her world turns upside down when her mother makes a comeback into her life.

What works:
  • The plot really works. It is multigenerational and has a bunch of interesting characters.
  • Riley captures the movie world so well. It is atmospheric and paints a great picture of wartime and the Welsh landscape.
  • The narrative is so smooth. It is also compelling because the events keep happening. Very action oriented.
What doesn't:
  • Nothing really.
It is a well told story and Riley has a way of creating authentic characters. Cheska and the menacing way in which she moves around disrupting the people's lives around her makes for a very compellng narrative.

A great read.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Mandibles - Lionel Shriver

photo courtesy: goodreads.com
An unnerving futuristic story. 

Unnerving because, although the premise of the story sounds bizarre it seems so plausible. The title gives the impression of a saga - well it traces the lives of the family members over a 18 year period - but it is interspersed with elements of science fiction and "economic fiction" (if the genre exists!).

Lionel Shriver's books are known to many; for me she was a new author. A quick search told me her books have been great successes, winning reviews containing the word "thought provoking" to say the least. 

I agree with them. I received this book from the mumsnet book club. I am glad I did and stuck through with it. It was not an easy read.

Gist:

As the title suggests, the Mandibles are a family of three generations living in the US and are going through a period where the dollar as a currency has crashed and its implications on their lives.

What works:
  • Loved the wordplay especially with the names of Willing Darkly and Elona. Very cleverly done.
  • Loved the futuristic world. A Mexican president and the immigrants taking over. A wall keeping America out. oh and the program. Wow! what imagination.
  • My favourtie bits from the story were the dialogues where a character says "No one reads books. Everyone is writing them." Also in another part, where Lowell laments that work of the mind is not considered a skill anymore when compared to physical labour. 
  • The story has been structured and loved the chapter headings too. Cynical and at times mindboggling. But it makes sense once you delve into the chapter. 
  • It is a demanding book; definitely not an escapist read. But it kept on playing on my mind long after. Worth the trudge then.
What doesn't:
  • There are times when it reads like an economics textbook.
Overall, a very interesting, thought provoking story. Especially in this Brexit and Trump era, such books hold more relevance than they would - normally.





Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing - Mira Jacob

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
An unusual title for a story about loss.

It was the title that hooked me in. I do not remember a more offbeat title that I have read in recent times. Sometime back, I was travelling to the US and got the chance to read it while visiting the country. Two reasons why I have been wanting to read this for a while - firstly because of the title and secondly because of its author.

The book promised to be a diasporic read (one of my favourite genres) and the timing felt right. It is a tome of a book and despite friendly warning by a fellow reader "not to keep my expectations high" and that it was "still a good read".

Gist:

A malayalee family settled in the US visits family in Kerala for holidays in the 70s. There is a matriach mother who wants to bring her prodigal son back home. A son who resents the trappings of a tight knit family and a child who sees everything through her own childlike vision.

Years later, when the son, now a famous surgeon is seen as behaving erratically, the daughter Amina Eapen is called back home. She has to piece together events in the past and present as she delves into family secrets and tries to find direction in her own life in the process.

What works:
  • The prose. It is beautifully written though a bit of sharp editing would have helped a bit.
  • The characters. It was reminicent of God of small things, mainly because of the Syrian family connection. However the story is completely different and very diasporic in nature.
  • The story moves well back and forth in time. I loved the incident in India and the growing up years of Amina and her brother more than the present timeline. For me, that held a better connection than Amina's current situation.
What doesn't:
  • There are times when the plot loses the reader especially pertaining to Amina's life. The author takes for granted that the reader will be familiar with Amina's line of work or setting. That is not the case.
  • The writing sounds a bit alien at times, failing to build the connection with the reader.
  • The story with its weighty paragraphs can be very heavy, affecting the reader's interest levels.

It is a good one off read but then like the fellow reader also suggested, go in expecting much else and you may be disappointed.


Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters - Nadiya Hussain

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A dollop of "Little women", a dash of Pride and "prejudice" mixed with Asian culture maketh this breezy read.

That is how it felt like, reading this novel. Discovering that this baking star had turned author was a pleasant surprise and I was eager to see if she wrote as well as she baked!

Everybody remembers her "I am never going to put boundaries on myself ever again." Well, it does feel she has followed it up. A quick search told me ever since her win, she has brought out a cookbook and also a book for kids. I also remember a TV series about Nadiya visiting Bangladesh made it on BBC screens last year.

Hmm...I have a problem with celebrity books though. Are they popular because of how they good they are or because of who it is written by? Does the brand help to overlook shortcomings in the work? I was curious to find out.

Also, how do these people manage to rustle up stories so adroitly when others like us take ages to weave a decent story?

Gist:

Told from multi person narratives of four sisters - Fatima, Farah, Bubblee and Mae, this is a story of an Asian family living in the English village of Wyvernage. The chaos and the banter makes them seem like any other family. But something happens, that disrupts the balance. Will it bring them closer or drive the family apart?

What works:
  • The banter. The dialogues are very good. Be it Bubblee's feminist tirade or 16 year old Mae's reactions - I loved the book for this exchange of words alone.
  • The structure. The story moves very well, fluid and action oriented. It pauses at the right time to introduce a twist or some action to move it forward.
  • The characters. They are well etched and have their own personality traits that justifies their actions.
What doesn't:
  • Reminds me of the Bend it like Beckham movie. Except it doesn't feel as though we are looking at anything different. 
  • Also, marriage between first cousins is seen as the norm and there is no attempt made shed light on it. It tackes the usual women-should-be-married-and-have-babies concept but then it does not offer any insight or perspectives. Or maybe I am asking for more.
So although it is entertaining, it misses that crucial ingredient that elevates an entertaining story to a great story.

The first page reveals Hussain's name along with Ayisha Malik, a talented author whose book Sofia Khan is not obliged was highly commended. From then on, it is easy to see where Nadiya takes off and Ayisha steps in. It is a work of brilliant collaborative effort though. Nadiya's TV series and her love of baking blends with the repartee and varied characters of Malik to make an interesting concoction.

The story is bound to appeal to fans who are eager to devour Nadiya in any form. Perhaps, a measure of its success was already gauged, which is why it is part of a trilogy. Will be interesting to see if the second one manages to live up to the first one. 

Reminds me of that frothy cupcake carefully packaged with colourful icing and a generous dash of sprinkles. Lick off the icing and the sprinkles -  and it is just fairycake after all. It may fill you up for the moment, but not leave you satiated.

But that doesn't make a cupcake any less appealing, does it?

Traitors in the Shadows (Empire of the Moghul #6) - Alex Rutherfurd

photo courtesy: goodreads.com
A well told fragment from the drama ridden Moghul dynasty.

I loved reading Indian history at school way back as a primary school student. As an older reader, when I came across historical fiction, I found it a bit frustrating to see the absence many Indian historical warriors. Indian writeres seem more interested in the mythological genre, bringing to life so interesting peripheral characters. Although of late, Indian writers are taking an interest in historical fiction, it is yet to take off like the boom in mythology genre.

Therefore, my excitement at coming across the Empire of the Moghul series. Here was the story written by a "non-Indian", and that somehow made it more alluring. My reason for it? The perspective was not going to be biased and therefore bound to be more interesting.

I remember picking up one from the middle of the series Ruler of the World - the story of Akbar the Great, some time back. Akbar is one of my favourite historical characters. This book lived up to its expectations: it breathed life into the historical contexts. Soon, I began looking for the other books in the series.

Perhaps I harboured high expectations or maybe the later stories seemed a lot more formulaic. The subsequent books were a bit dissapointing. The mughal legend is full of stories about conquests, the fight for power and then the battle to hold on to it. It is very easy to miss the precarious balance between the violence and the plotting of the story. 

Traitors in the shadows, however, seemed to promise balance and and with some really interesting characters, it was too good to resist.

Gist:

Usurping the present ruler, his father Shah Jahan Aurganzeb is now the Moghul Emperor of the dynasty. He tries to make peace with his siblings who have been the collateral damage in this journey. 
On the other hand, he needs to keep a tight rein - rebels like the Rajputs, Jats and the Marathas are constantly looking for that weakness to break his defence.

On the family front, sons have always been the boon and bane of a Mughal warrior's life. Will 
Aurangzeb manage to stop history from repeating itself or will he be powerless in the face of fatherly love?

What works:
  • For me it was the introduction of Shivaji in the opening chapter that did it. I recall fond memories of reading about the Maratha warror in my history textbook. Seeing one of my favourite parts of history (Shivaji- Afzal Khan scene) come to life in the pages was such a delight.
  • History has Aurangzeb down as a tyrant and the story does not show him any different. But it shows how he struggles with his decisions, even when unjust and cruel. Loved the perspective and the way it was handled here.
What doesn't:
  • The action can get repetitive and there are places where the passage of time is not clearly marked. Events happen very quickly, but it takes time to understand that significant period has passed in between. 
Apart from this, the book was a great read. A thoroughly entertaining piece of Indian historical fiction.




Monday, 27 March 2017

Everyone Brave is Forgiven - Chris Cleave

photo courtesy: goodreads.com
A different take on the World war.

With the 100th anniversary of the WW1 celebrated last year, a lot of BBC dramas, stories on that period came out, to commemorate the event.

Having seen a couple of those, I had some preconceived notions about what to expect from this WW11 story.  Cleave was an established writer and the jacket compared the book to Atonement. When you read that kind of statement, you can imagine my curiosity regarding the book.

Apparently the author was heavily influenced by his grandparents and letters that he found about the World war. The author's note offers great insight into how titbits of informaton were woven into the novel.

My motivation for picking up the book, were the opening lines:

War was declared at 11.45 and Mary North signed up at noon. She did it, at lunch, before the telegrams came, in case her mother said no.

As a student of the craft who treasures opening lines, it really tops the list of some of the best I have read in recent times.

Gist:

Mary North leaves her finishing school and signs up as a teacher instead.

Tom Shaw doesn't think the war is going to last. He chooses to opt out and work in the
education authority instead.

Alistair Heath signs up as a soldier and is sent to Malta,  altering his outlook and life.

Three young people caught up in one of the most turbulent times recorded in English history. They are young and naive but remain neither, by the end of it all. Do they still carry the optimism of a young generation or does the war make them war weary and cynical?

What works:
  • The title. I found it too long and puzzling but by the time I got to the end, it made sense. My favourite lines:
I was brought up to believe everyone brave is forgiven but in wartime, courage is cheap and clemency is out of season. 
  • The love for the city. There are some beautiful lines that define the beauty of the city.
London was a lightening of the sky. It was the bloody last hour of the milk tooth. It was a city dying to begin. 
  • The so-called  high society attitudes
Society was not complicated after all. One only had to follow one's first name from the table plan to the wedding banns and all the way through to the tombstone.
  • The use of humour. I loved the banter between Hilda and Mary and then the letters between Mary and Alistair. The dark, cruel side of the war is blunted a bit with the use of humour flowing through the novel.
  • The multicultural fabric of the city taking its roots among racist attitudes.
Flat rubble waited for them in the far bank of the river. Rubble to build on caught no one's attention but theirs. It did not catch the light, having no promise but what they brought with them.
  • What I also liked is how it sheds light on the the dark side of evacuation - discriminating between who could go and couldn't
What doesn't:
  • Action follows very subtly and quickly. After reading a long description about how the characters feel or the city is turning into ruins, the plot moves forward without warning. Perhaps that is a stylistic thing, but as a reader, it took some getting used to.
  • There were times when the pace seemed to lag a bit and attention meandering. However, that did not deter me from enjoying the structure and the writing style. That alone kept me going till the end. 
Overall, a great piece of writing. It is not your average read, so quick-read, plot oriented book lovers may well steer clear. But for those who love to savour and linger over paragraphs, relish that aftertaste of reading good prose, well, this one's bound to tickle your taste buds.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Lie With Me - Sabrine Durrant

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
Tight storyline, complex characters make this an enjoyable read.

The pink letters against a background of bottle green are such an eye catcher. To be honest, it was that which drew me to it. The premise is vague yet compelling. I loved the evasive summary particularly, arousing interest without saying much.

Durrant is a journalist and author with a couple of novels under her belt. I had never read her previous novels but a quick search told me how talented she  is. I just loved her 140 character story for the Guardian twitter challenge.

Gist:

Paul Morris, a one novel success, is happily drifting through life when he meets an old friend Andrew Hopkins. A chance meeting leads to a dinner party and then a holiday with his family in Greece. Morris, who till now managed to have no strings attached suddenly finds himself entangled in a set of relationships which threatens to burst his bubble and confront his past.

What works:
  • The story works right from the outset. The slimy, narcisstic narrator who is honest, yet cavalier is finally etched. It is hard to like this character and yet you are curious to know what happened to him.
  • The entire novel rests on this one character. He is a one time success, yet a current failure. He is the intellectual snob who is good at dinner party conversations but not trustworthy. With lie after another, he works himself into a complex web of deceit.
  • The other characters of Alice and Andrew were well etched out too. The tension buildup as the story went on was palpable and keeps you guessing and reading on. 
  • I can see it easily as a movie. I am sure with the right actors to play the character, it will be much better than some of the thrillers that have made it to the screen.
What doesn't:
  • Hardly anything. It works at all levels. It had me hooked and though I was reading another literary novel at the time, it forced me to put it aside and get to the end to reveal the suspense.
An excellent thriller, a brilliant read to perk up the spring day.


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Granchester Mysteries - Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation

A breezy set of crime stories set in an English village.

I received this book as part of goodreads giveaway in return for an honest review.

I heard seen the itv programme and so was excited about the books.
I enjoyed it for its Father Brown type central character, but his handsome and young version. Being a character driven person, for me, a good mystery must have the important ingredient: detective with a distinct persona.


Gist:

A set of crime short stories set in Granchester. Sidney Chambers, the local vicar with a nose for investigation, always gets into it and helps Geordie Keating on the case. However, there are times when his objectivity is called into question, particularly when it it involves people close to him. Does he rise above it or falls prey to it?

 What works:
  • These are not drawn out mysteries but short stories that gives you a flavour of the small village. Living in a village myself, I can relate to how the community works and it is delightful to see it represented in fiction.
  • Runcie displays a keen understanding of the human mind and also of Chambers. Loosely based on his dad who served in the army and then became a clergyman, this detective is shown in shades of grey. Loved the complexity of it.
What doesn't:
  • I had seen the programme before and the storyline is a bit different to the book. The relationship between the characters is not how it was shown in the TV. That confused me a bit. However, once I saw it as a different story, it was a lot easier.
  • The format. Although they are nice to dip into, they do not have the compelling edge of a taut crime story. The writing is leisurely with musings on human behaviour. However, it does not give you that terse feel of action.  
  • It is a nice one to dip in and out. It is great for that lazy read, when you do not want the demands of a tightly written story, instead want something to relax with. But I found my attention wandering. The style was too meandering for me.
It reminds one of afternooon, one hour crime dramas. Entertaining but without the bite. 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A Suitable Vengence - Elizabeth George

www.goodreads.com
A vivid, layered, atmospheric tale.

The book jacket does justice to the plot. The waves hitting the cliffs is quite reflective of Cornwall. In fact that is how I visualised it as well when I was reading the story.

George is a favourite and I have read nearly all of her novels and even re-read some in a attempte to study the technique. I still remember how my first novel of her : In the Presence of the Enemy. Her deft handling of plot and the characters were very impressive. The story stayed with me until much later and then I started hunting down her works and devouring them all.

This is one of the earlier novels in the Lynley-Havers series. The duo have not become work partners yet. The other characters St James, Deborah and Lady Helen are very much present. It is interesting to see how they are at an interesting stage and how the dynamics of the relationship shifts and evolves to form new liasons.

Gist:

Lynley and Deborah are in Cornwall with their close friends, St James and Lady Helen to celebrate Lynley's engagement with Deborah. However, where these characters get together, there has to be a murder nearby and that is what happens. A journalist is killed and since he happens to be the husband of the daughter of their employee, Lynley feels compelled to step in with his team and investigate.

Soon another murder is reported. This time it strikes closer home and brings Lynley's personal issues to fore: a troubled relationship with his Mother and a stormy relationship with his brother

Lynley must deal with them before it embroils them all further more in a tangled mess that bears a painful connection to the murder.

What works:
  • The characters are like old friends. I know I have said this before but then that is how it feels . It was interesting to see how the dynamics of the relationship is formed here and later shifts.
  • The plot. It is like picking up a thread buried in the sand and then lifting it up and following the trail. The narrative is so fluid and smooth, with no jerky movements or past/ present shifts in time.
What doesn't:
  • The trouble with George is that she can be too detailed. It takes the zing out of the story, slacking the pace. There are some middle bits which are a bit sagging, putting demands on the reader to stick with it.
Overall, a good read. Perhaps not as good as some of the others. But the characters are there and the twists are interesting. 

Thumbs up.




Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
An intriguing title, a superb protagnist but then the interest fizzles out.

I had heard a lot of the book. The first page is full of great reviews and it did a lot to liven up my expectations. Alas, it did not deliver as promised, despite an impressivelyl packaged cover and premise.

The cover does draw you in. "How do you solve a mystery when you can't remember the clues?" That coupled with the fact that the person solving is a 82-year-old dementia patient is enough to pique average curiosity and mine was no different. It was a shame it did not sustain till the end.

Gist:

Maud is 82 years old with dementia. She cannot remember anything and is looked after by her daughter and carers. However in her muddled up state, she has one clear memory of a friend Elizabeth, who she worked with at Oxfam. Something is gnawing at her and she determined that Elizabeth is in trouble. She has been ridiculed for her attempts to call the family but she hellbent on finding out where she is.

Simultaneously, the story shifts to a wartime scenario where Maud's younger self is living with her family and something happens that changes the family forever.

The past shows a young, impressionable Maud who witnessing something, she is unable to make sense of. At some point, the past and the present collide. It finally gives meaning to Maud's present, senile existence.

What works:
  • Healey inhabits 82 year old senile mindset so well. It is so easy to associate and empathise with the confused character who has no bearings of herself. It is a brilliant portrayal and I loved it for that reason alone. 
  • The wartime narrative though is interesting, I found myself waiting for the present narrative which had lots of interesting characters such as the daughter Helen and her grand daughter. 
What doesn't:
  • I found the wartime narrative boring and although there was a sense of whodunnit to it, it seemed stretched out. Some solid editing would have tightened the piece up.
I am not sure if it was the hype that put me off or if it was the story. The story starts off well and I loved the protagnist but then it did not last long and there was a sense of "how long till it comes together". 

An OK read but a very interesting protagnist. For that reason alone, it is worth a read, I would say.