Monday, 20 November 2017

The Good man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - Phillip Pullman

photo courtesy: goodreads.com
A revered, controversial story told in a different light.

The Christ controversy was made popular by Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code - for me. I was unaware of it it till then and thereafter began reading up a lot about it ever since. Not of them were that good. Coming across this one was a big plus. It offered a very simplistic perspective and talked to me in a language I understand - how stories evolve and change over a period of time.

Considering the author is a well known atheist, it was interesting to see his version of the story. What I liked is that there is no open criticism but more of a gentle nudge towards an alternative version. I am not religious and more fascinated by the theory. Pullman is a storyteller after all and his logical and pragmatic approach serves the story well. The afterword is the best part where he explains his reasons behind the story. 

Gist:

A set of twins are born at the same time - Jesus and Christ. However Jesus is marked for popularity whereas Christ lurks in the shadows. People are drawn to his persona but with it comes the pitfalls of being a rebel. On the other hand, Christ is the cool operator, who finds himself an unwilling participant in the order of events. Very cleverly told in a layperson's language the story covers the crucifixion and also the resurrection. 

What works:
  • There is no lengthy explanation instead the author delves right in. It has a fluid style and bears the direct approach of a children's book. The only difference is that though it is a linear narrative, the layers are added slowly adding complexity and dimension to it.
  • Loved the way the author has used simple, direct language to narrate the story.
  • Throughout the story, it did not claim to refute claims or challenge any theory. It is simply a story and up to the reader to make sense of it. It is a mature work and to me is a testimony to the author's talent.
  • I loved his explanation of the miracles which made perfect sense to me although I can imagine it may annoy a believer.
What doesn't:
  • Nothing really. It is a quick read and offers a great perspective on a much debated concept. For someone who is fascinated by the religious theory, it offers a great insight into how the politics of it works. 
Highly recommended for those who are interested in concept of Christ and Church.

Also for those who simply love a well told story.

Friday, 10 November 2017

The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star - Vaseem Khan

photo courtesy: goodreads.com
Secrets, social message and a detective with his elephant in tow- great combination.

This delightful series is a joy to read. This is my second one and I was happy to see that the lightheartedness of the previous one is maintained in this one too.

This time however, the focus is on Mumbai's film world - popularly called Bollywood - where Chopra and his elephant associate are called in to investigate a high profile kidnapping.

Gist:


Chopra, an avid lover of Hindi films is called to a yesteryear actress' house after her son goes missing while on stage in full public view. Meanwhile, Rangwalla, the assistant goes undercover after the head of the eunuch community calls in asking for help. 


What works:

  • The detective and his elephant work very well together. There are some interesting scenes that make good use of the elephant assistant that make for an entertaining read.
  • Using Bollywood as the background makes for an interesting setting. Loved making way into the world of arclights and the secrets that surround the people who live in it.
  • Also like the way Khan philosophizes without sounding preachy.
What doesn't:
  • The sub mystery did sound a bit "filmy". The ghostly singing in the Haveli is reminiscent of old Hindi movies, I remember watching as a kid. In this fast paced life laced with technology, it sounded a bit dated. Having said that, it did provide an enjoyable diversion to a degree even if it sounded tad unconvincing.
Overall, another light refreshing read a story of lies, secrets set in the glittering world of the Hindi film industry. 



  

Thursday, 2 November 2017

The Ugly Five - Julia Donaldson

photo courtesy: goodreads.com
An interesting picture book about animals and beauty.

Donaldson is a favourite in our household and we must have read and watched her Gruffalo and Stick man at least a hundred times. 

Her ability to create an animal like Gruffalo with its prickly back and warts was something my 4 year old boy totally loved. (A Gruffalo soft toy often goes to bed with him.) My daughter on the hand, loved the Room on the Broom witch and the Christmassy Stick man and the adventures they have. 

I reckon what appeals to them is the rhyming way in which the story unfolds and transports them to a fascinating world.

Personally, I love her books too. Whether it is the monkey puzzle where the monkey is on a lookout for his mum or the superworm with its multi faceted skills, I loved reading them as much as my kids. Not to mention Axel Scheffler's illustrations that bring them to life. So when this book came to us, we already had a sense of what to expect and how good it should be.

Gist:

It is the African plain and as you look around the animals at the watering hole, you notice there are some animals that look different. They stand out from the crowd, and as they are first seen from the perspective of the other animals and then they introduce themselves you can see why. The ugly five then make their way through the forest and and then something happens that brings about a change in perspective. 

I could see that the story moved beyond the obvious fact about ugly animals and talked about the concept of beauty. But it is a picture book after all and I was clearly not the target audience. I handed it over to my little ones for review.

My 4-year-old boy's review:

"I like the animals. They are big and scary. I like the activities at the end."

My 7 year old girl's review:

"I first thought it will be for babies since I did Donaldson's books in my reception class. But as the story went on, I was curious to find out who these animals are. The pictures are really good and I like the different words she has used for rhyme. These ugly animals are not 'so ugly' after all."

One liked the illustrations and the animals more whereas the other liked the message and the style of story presentation. 
Both agreed....

that they liked the other older books better. But then they have read and re- read those for ages. This one does not rank up there for them but they conceded that it was a book they would want to go back to again.

Revised Review

Its been a few weeks and my 4 year old brings back the book ever so often. He loves reading it again and again. A sure hit there.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel In the Crown - Vaseem Khan

photo courtesy: goodreads.com
A crime story set in Mumbai 's bustling street - with an elephant.

I came across this book after attending the Asian Writer Event which celebrated the its 10th anniversary. The event was a day filled with interaction and workshops - a truly inspirational event that brought published and established writers together. Vaseem Khan, the author was on one of the panels talking about his crime series involving a detective solving crime with his pet elephant.

What a hook! I love crime thrillers not only for their stories but also for the detective's persona and the other small bits and bobs that accompany though not necessarily part of the core crime story.

The first story introduces a retired inspector Chopra, who is bequeathed a baby elephant Ganesha .  Together he and the animal together solve a mystery. The series continues with the second story, where Ganesha, while settling into the family, helps Chopra once again to another mystery concerning the theft of a remarkable jewel belonging to the British Queen.

Gist:

Inspector Chopra is at an exhibition of the crown jewels that are being displayed at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. However, the jewels are stolen, literally in his presence and Chopra finds himself in the middle of it trying to find out who could have stolen it.

What works:
  • The setting is great, the background information with which Khan constructs the persona of Chopra is good. He builds the background well with attention to detail.
  • The narrative is fluid. To me this seemed like Death in Paradise - a british crime series set in the Caribbean, -  in a Mumbai setting. 
  • There are so many peripheral characters, Poppy the wife, Poornima the painful -mother-in-law, Irfan the orphan and also Chopra's nemesis, Rao. Loved the way the characters are fitted around the story, with different strands continuing at the same time. 
  • Khan shows a good understanding of the city he sets the story in. Reading about the Prince of Wales Museum and Madh island - places close to my "Bombaywalla" heart felt good and it was great to see him have such a good control of the place he writes about.
    What doesn't:
    • The setting clearly works and while Khan seems to have got the series firmly on hand on track, there is a nagging doubt of what will happen once the elephant goes older. There are mentions that the maturing of an elephant takes a long time....but then at some point that police truck is going to be a bit tight for an elephant....
    • Also Inspector Chopra in Brihanmumbai police seems a bit improbable when compared to a Inspector Shinde. Khan justifies the name though to a certain extent by giving a plausible background although one cannot help wondering if market forces are at play...
    Overall an enjoyable murder mystery. But in addition it is also an emotional story, with moments of philosophical introspection and they are so well layered that it makes for a wholesome reading experience.

    A lighthearted, well plotted murder mystery by an author who writes from heart.






    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.