Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Cormoran Strikes after Harry Potter rests

For the uninitiated, Cormoran Strike is the lead character in the crime series by Robert Galbraith. For the more uninitiated, that's the pseudonym under which JK Rowling writes.
..And for the more more uninitiated, that's the author of Harry Potter. 

Today, Robert Galbraith is shortlisted for Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year for her third book in the series, 'Career of Evil'. It seems like the perfect omen to talk/write about her.

Apparently, a reporter unearthed that Galbraith could indeed be Rowling, by the aid of a computer program, and determining it based on their language choices. That makes me happier - if EL James wrote under a pseudonym, I am sure "Oh My" will figure prominently in it. :)

For a layman with a normal mind, like me, the similarities between the two series are few:
  • Set in London
  • A strong feminine character as a sidekick
  • Wordy, descriptive, and hence believable.
  • There is the hint of a romance, but nothing in-your-face.
  • The plot is convoluted, and very difficult to predict.
  • The protaganists are both physically and noticeably scarred - a lightning scar on the forehead in one, and an amputee with a prosthetic leg in another. 
  • Breaking laws seems to be a given :)
  • There is more focus on "how to", rather than "who". Remarkably, even the crime series doesn't go for the time-tested big reveal in the end. In most of her novels, the killer is one among the shortlisted set of suspects. Its the how, like the Harry Potter and his attempts to finish Voldermort, that defines the storyline.

However, I did not expect a Cormoran Strike out of a Harry Potter creator, since the differences are way too many:
  • The most obvious is the genre of course. One is fantasy fiction (however much we believe otherwise), and the other is a very  grimy realistic crime novel.
  • The target audience is, theoretically, different. Harry Potter was aimed at the younger audience, while Cormoran Strike is definitely for adult readers. Career of Evil is especially disturbing.
  • Harry Potter is instantly likeable, while Strike takes some getting used to. Strike is not without his flaws (with his history, his drinking problem and his affliction to junk food).
  • As Rowling, she focused on forbidden forests and new creatures, and not so much on job profiles. As Galbraith, he focused on concrete jungles and different professions (fashion, editing etc), providing a very concise Arthur Haileysque feel to it.
  • While both are set in UK, the feel of the book is very different. I am not sure how everyone sees the book, but for me, Harry Potter felt like it was in a sepia/vintage tone, while the Strike series was in a decidedly darker, grey tone. The locations are dirtier and edgier and to put it in perspective, every scene in the Strike series seems to occur in Knockturn Alley.

With more Cormoran Strike novels to look forward to, I am glad that she hasn't stopped writing. I really hope she is considering writing a romantic novel series under another pseudonym, since she seems to be good at everything she pens.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist
ISBN: 9780-06-230681-4
First Published: 2014
*** (3/5)

Set in the seventeenth century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist is the story of an 18-year old new bride, who has to act beyond her years to deal with a strange family, her husband's trade, and a miniaturist.


No profanity, some sexual scenes.

This is the story of Nella Portman, who gets married to a rich trader in Amsterdam, Johannes Brandt. She arrives to the new home to a lukewarm welcome and a cold sister-in-law, Marin Brandt, a chirpy servant, Cornelia, and a first of her, a black steward, Otto.

Her husband is aloof, but friendly. When he gives her a miniature version of the house as a wedding gift, Nella contacts a Miniaturist to furnish it. What starts a simple order of furnishings takes an unexpected turn when the miniaturist starts sending Nella things she hasn't ordered, and somehow predicts events before they unfold.

There are some interesting themes that have been explored in this book: 
1. Racism: Otto is an oddity, since he is not a slave, but a paid employee, a concept unheard of in 1686. This results in open hostility as well as curious stares
2. Women's rightsWhile Nella breaks most of the rules, she is still constrained by the society of her times. Arranged marriages are a norm. Unaccompanied women, or those staying alone, are frowned upon. 
3. Trade: Trade forms an interesting backdrop of the story, through the concept of guilders, trading and storing goods, destinations  and also, societal status

The Sugar Cones
Despite being fairly long at 420-odd pages, the book is an interesting read. It is well researched - the last 3 pages even have a glossary, salary comparisons and household costs in the 17th century Amsterdam. Also, the pivotal trading good (in this context), is a sugar cone, which is how sugar was traded until the 19th century.  

I liked the style of writing, and the story as well - maybe because the tone, premise and the protagonist were similar to that of Rebecca (Of Daphne Du Maurier). There is this overlying creepiness and mystery in the story almost till the very end.

The blurb on the cover of the book, however, is misleading, which in part, led to unmet expectations. To highlight a couple of points,

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed" : Um no, there was a lot that was not revealed, and there was a lot that was hidden. 

"..As she uncovers its secrets, she realizes the escalating dangers that await them all": No she didn't. She uncovers its secrets only after the dangers have already occurred (the only exception being the blackening sugar cone).

The book also suffers from a last-minute stitched button-esque ending. The main story proceeds smoothly, but the miniaturist's story is an oddity and a supplementary addition rather than a complementary one. Her semi-futuristic miniatures, meant to add a sense of mystery, don't get the story arc they deserve. The ending is left vague and to me, seemed very incomplete. To be put it more succinctly, it would have made absolutely no difference to the story line if the miniaturist, and the miniature house was removed from the equation - and that is a serious flaw.

The baseline story is good. The historical references and research is spot on. Just for that, the book makes for an interesting read.
For anyone expecting to discover the novelty of miniature houses, miniaturists and a potential suspense based on and around that, it may be a disappointment.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Another Man's Wife - Manjulal Bajaj

Another Man's Wife
ISBN: 9789350094921 
First Published: 2012
A collection of nine stories based mainly around rural India, with women as central characters

Fiction, Drama

No profanity.

Favorite Quote:
When you are in the presence of a good story, it is the only possible story - no other stories exist in that moment. ("Marrying Nusrat")

In 2012, I had reviewed A Calendar Too Crowded, and I was so disappointed by the depiction of women as either defensive or sorry figures. It was, therefore, with mixed feelings, that I took up Another Man's Wife.

Bajaj's women are not defensive. They are defiant and strong, with shades of grey. They aren't always right or moral, and that's perfectly alright. I loved every minute and every story of it. The simplicity of the stories, set amongst the most varied of backgrounds and Indian history, made for a riveting read.

Take for example, the first story, "Ripe Mangoes", where the protaganist is sleeping with her daughter's tuition teacher. As the story progresses, we end up loving her, EVEN when she slaps her daughter and says "Stop Snivelling, you little bitch."

Or the story of Ulsha Minj in "the Birthmark", a slave turned wife, who decided not to abort her girl child. Tackling one of the biggest problems for Indian women, this story could have easily been preachy or condemning. It was neither, and much more importantly, the ending was quite unexpected.

Or the story of "Me and Sammy Fernandez", a story of a husband-murderer set amidst a beautiful jazz background in Goa. Again, it's not the story itself that is riveting. It is the way each element is played out - the father who opposes the love marriage initially and becomes the crusader of rights for inter-caste marriages; the man who changes after marriage, and the woman who keep giving herself excuses to stay in it. 

Or the story of "Marrying Nusrat" with it's thoughtful little touchers - be it a teenager getting a nickname when he mishears "PRA" as "Pyaare", the struggle of the shift from a village to a city ("To be a poor man in a big city is a terrible thing - the only bodily fluid you can discharge with dignity is sweat") or the background of old hindi songs playing on a transistor in a tea stall.

Or the story of "Under a moonlit sky", which shows the plight of houseboat owners in Srinagar during the terror attacks, something I have frankly not given much thought to (and if I had read this first, I would have been more generous with the "Shikara" owner in Dal lake). While the houseboats resort to desperate means to survive, the once honeymooners of the houseboat are desperate for completely different reasons.  

This book is not a sob story. It's the story of women who are fighters, women who have not given up, and are happy with taking their destiny in their own hands. This book is not just about strong women. It's the story of middle class and rural India, who have their own battles to fight. 
Its fairly obvious by now, that the book is strongly recommended for a read. At least one of the nine stories is going to resonate with you. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Dream Book Shelf

Most of us have a dream home - I have a dream book shelf. The shelf would be of rich solid dark wood,which would cover one side of the wall of the study room. There would be enough room for each book and each section to standout and to breathe. Needless to say, apart from the books and probably a chair or two to sit in and read, the room wouldn't have anything else. Something like this:

Obviously, the books will be categorized and organized into the following:

Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind
Nora Roberts: All of hers

Thrillers-Nail Biting:
Sidney Sheldon: Tell Me your Dreams, If Tomorrow Comes, The Stars Shine Down
Michael Crichton: The Lost World
Stieg Larsson: Millenium Series
Arthur Hailey: Detective, Runway zero-eight

Thrillers - Languine and Intelligent:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes 
Edgar Allan Poe: Any of his
Agatha Christie: Hercule poirot series
Oscar Wilde: THe Picture of Dorian Gray

Fantasy Fiction:
Tolkien: LOTR Series
R.R.Martin: Game of Throne Series
J.K.Rowling: Harry Potter Series

Mythology/Historical Fiction:
Chitra Bannerjee Devakaruni: A Palace of Illusions
Amish Tripathi: Shiva Trilogy
Devdutt Patnaik: Sita
Christian Jacq: The TutanKhamun Affair
Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace

Beauty of written word:
Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude
David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

Love for details:
Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace
Arthur Hailey: Hotel, Airport,  MoneyChangers, Wheels
Robin Cook: Any of his, especially Brain

Re-living childhood:
Enid Blyton: Famous Five Series
Enid Blyton: The Six Cousins

Shed a Tear or Two:
Daphne De Maurier: Rebecca and The Hungry Hill
Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance
Khaled Hosseini: The Thousand Splendid Suns, And the Mountains Echoed

Witty reads:
John Irving: The World According to Garp
Ken Kesey: One flew over the cuckoo's nest
Nora Roberts: Any of hers would do.
Santosh Desai: Mother Pious Lady
Steve Toltz: Fraction of the Whole
Bill Watterson: Calvin & Hobbes

I have read all of the above books more than once, and still can't get enough of them. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

And the Mountains Echoed - Khaled Hosseini

I haven't written a book review in a year, and ever since I read this book, I knew I wanted to re-start writing with this.
I wrote multiple versions of the review, and deleting all of them, since
  • Hosseini is my favorite author.
  • No words can do justice to his writing.

Here is my attempt to at least chronicle the experience of reading one of his works.
And the Mountains Echoed
First Published in: 2013
The third book by Khaled Hosseini is set in Afganistan, and revolves around the story of a brother-sister duo, which later branches out to introduce multiple characters of the plot.

Simple-Wordy, Serious

Fiction, Drama


No Profanity at all.

Favorite Quote:
Kabul is a thousand tragedies per square mile.

The book starts with a father telling their children a fairy tale. While one would expect a "and they lived happily ever after' at the end of it, being Hosseini's work, this tale moved me to tears, and set the mood for the rest of the book..

The essential core of the story is the relationship between Abdullah and Pari, where the latter is sold off to a rich and childless couple Mr.Wahdati and Nila, through the siblings’ uncle, Nabi. The parting of the siblings, while not described in detail, is explained by their step-mother, Parwana, in just a few words:
“It had to be her. I am sorry, Abdullah. She had to be the one.” The finger cut, to save the hand.
Worse yet is how the story pans out. While Abdullah, the doting brother, does not have it in his capacity to forget her, Pari, quickly moves on owing to her age and a new exciting life. For her, Abdullah is a dim memory, which would strike her again in full force in her old age.

Hosseini takes periodic diversions to include the fringe characters (which don't seem like fringe once you are done with the chapter, at least until one starts reading the next one). Thus, we get to know about their mother Parwana, and her insecurities with her sister Masooma; the insecurity with started during birth:
(Masooma) was merrily passed around, from cousin to aunt to uncle. Bounced on this lap, balanced on that knee. Many hands tickled her soft belly. Many noses rubbed against hers. They rocked with laughter when she playfully grabbed Mullah Shekib’s beard. They marveled at her easy, sociable demeanor. They lifted her up and admired the pink flush of her cheeks, her sapphire blue eyes, the graceful curve of her brow, harbingers of the startling beauty that would mark her in a few years’ time. As Masooma performed, Parwana watched quietly as though slightly bewildered, the one member of an otherwise adoring audience who didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Every now and then, her mother looked down at her, and reached to squeeze her tiny foot softly, almost apologetically.

The insecurity, in time, had ghastly consequences – the events penned down in such a way that you end up feeling sorry for both of them, and their loss of innocence.

We are mystified over Mr.Wahdati's marriage with Nila (Pari's adoptive parents), until we understand the meaning of Nila’s mysterious statement: "It was always you Nabi".

We find out about Mr.Wahdati's neighbours Idris and TImur and their visit to Afganistan where they meet Roshi, a victim of a bad accident. While we believe one to be worse over the other for his show of exhibitionism, we are made to realise that it is this poorly judged character that actually ends up doing a good deed. The concerned one, who starts making excuses for his lack of inaction justifies it such: 
Roshi has become something abstract to him, like a character in a play. Their connection has frayed. The unexpected intimacy he had stumbled upon in that hospital, so urgent and acute, has eroded into something dull. The experience has lost its power. He recognizes the fierce determination that had seized him for what it really was, an illusion, a mirage. He had fallen under the influence of something like a drug. The distance between him and the girl feels vast now. It feels infinite, insurmountable, and his promise to her misguided, a reckless mistake, a terrible misreading of the measures of his own powers and will and character. Something best forgotten. He isn’t capable of it. It is that simple. 

Not to be left behind, we are given a glimpse of life in the siblings' village, through the eyes of the Adel, son of a wealthy landlord who attains the lands through unethical means, and how Adel ends up adjusting to the truth.
The part of him that over time would gradually, almost imperceptibly, accept this new identity that at present prickled like a wet wool sweater. Adel saw that, in the end, he would probably accept things as his mother had. Adel had been angry with her at first; he was more forgiving now. Perhaps she had accepted out of fear of her husband. Or as a bargain for the life of luxury she led. Mostly, Adel suspected, she had accepted for the same reason he would: because she had to. What choice was there?

Hosseini has used different forms of narratives in this book. There is first and third person narrative, letter-writing and interviews to bring the pieces of the puzzle together. The novel is completely different from his previous two due to the broader focus. While The Kite Runner was essentially about children and The Thousand Splendid Suns, about Women in Afganistan, And The Mountains Echoed lacks a central character theme. It could have been set up in any country in any part of the world. There are stories of every character, which, though tied together by some common threads, could make for an independent reading as well.

None of this dilutes the fact that it is impossible to read the book without getting emotional, at one story or another. And that like his previous books, you can never get your mind off it, even months after reading it.

It would be a cardinal sin for anyone to not read it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Top 15 Book-ish Moments

The simplest of  books can pack a very impactful moment or two. While the book as a whole may have been forgotten (or moth eaten), a single line, para or scene remains etched in our memories forever. 

My personal top 15 such scenes include:
1. Gone with the wind: 
Scarlett O'Hara tearing the curtain to make her dress.
In the very first scene, Scarlett sitting with the twins in the sunlight.

2. Rebecca:
Maxim patting his wife's head absent-mindedly (like one would pat a puppy).

3. A Thousand Splendid Suns: 
The ceasarean birth of the protaganist's son without an Anaesthetic

4. Kite Runner:
The protaganist finally finding the boy in ghonngroo n dancing.

5. And The Mountains echoed: 
The separation of the brother and the sister.
The final scene - Alzheimer's is my worst fear, second only to paralysis.

6. The Lord Of The Rings: 
Legolas seeing the Balrog for the first time ("Ui! Ui! A Balrog!").
The Ent's song.

7. Game of Thrones:
Jaime's multiple utterances of "Things I do for love", each having a different context and meaning.
The death of Tywin Lannister.
Cersei's walk of shame, and the final scene between Petyr, Sansa and Lysa in Ice & Fire

8. Tell me your dreams:
The realisation by the investigators that that all the three are actually... the same. 

9. The Satanic verses:
Eating the fish - bones and all.
The "Taka Tun Taka Tun" Song by Gabriel as he falls.

10.A Fine Balance:
The worm in the stomach, it's extradition and the final weight gain. (For a long time, I believed I had the same issue)

11. The Picture of Dorian Grey:
The disposal of the body so that no trace of it remained - I thought it was a creative leap by the author, until "Breaking Bad" happened.

12. Twilight:
The first time Bella saw Edward - Nowhere close to my love story, but in a parallel world, I can imagine being that smitten by Ashwin since he is like the epitome of my dream man.

13. One hundred years of solitude:
The trail of blood - Such a fantastical (and creepy) notion.

14. The Six Cousins:
Rodderick's shoe cleaning obsession - I have a similar obsession, so can imagine why Roddy enjoyed it so much!

15. The world according to Garp:
The car accident - I just couldn't get over it, close second to the Thousand Splendid Suns scene which gave me a lot of sleepless nights.

Are there any that stand out in your memory?

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Cupboard full of coats - Yvette Edwards

A Cupboard full of coats
First Published in: 2011
A first-person narrative of a 30-year old woman who revisits her mother’s murder fourteen years ago through flashbacks and confessions.




Not exactly profane, but does involve some graphic descriptions.

Favorite Quote:
Before delving into the review, I have to admit I was very taken with the title of the book, and more importantly, the relevance of it with the plot. Seldom does one see an appropriately named book. (One flew over the cuckoo’s nest is the other one that immediately comes to mind).

This book tells the story of the murder of a woman about fourteen years back. It is seen through the eyes of her daughter, Jinx, in a series of flashbacks evoked through her conversations with Lemon, one of the three involved in the murder. Living alone, hardened and bitter, these conversations between her and Lemon help bring perspective and eventually a closure to her traumatised past.

First and foremost, this book can make you hungry. Lemon, part-lover and part-father figure, in an effort to unwind Jinx, ends up in the kitchen creating one amazing dish after another. I could taste the pumpkin soup, the millet, the sorrel and the Guinness punch. I could feel myself loosening, and could only nod my head as Jinx articulated what I was thinking:
For a moment, my longing for the breakfast Lemon was cooking so intense, I actually felt afraid.
This book can make you angry - at Jinx for her attitude towards her son; at Lemon for the part he played in the murder; at Barris, the jealous lover of her mother, for his violence and disregard for everyone else; and most of all, at Jinx’s mother, for being so gullible and blind to her daughter’s feelings.

However, the ruling emotion for me after reading this book was an overwhelming sadness. In what I am sure was just meant to be a passing narrative, I found the interaction between Jinx and her son, Ben as the most arresting. It may have something to do with my being a (relatively) new mother; I could strangely empathise with Jinx. But that did not prevent me from getting teary-eyed imagining what Ben must have been going through. All through the narration, I struggled to keep the rejected boy out of my mind.

I am sure that this book will evoke different emotions in different readers. A mother with a healthy relationship with her son will be shocked at Jinx for her damaging attitude towards her son. A daughter who loves her mother could only nod her way through Jinx’s confessions about feeling left out and being angry at the latter’s apparent callousness. But I am sure that everyone would, at least once while reading, want to stop-midway, go to the kitchen and make something delicious.

If the book falls short (and it does, though slightly), it is because of its writing style. I think the author wanted to strike a balance between a simple narration and some dramatic revelations. Yvette Edwards is brilliant as a simple narrator. However, the dramatic revelations, like the names of the protagonist and her mother (which is revealed only in the last chapter and there wasn’t enough punch to warrant that) seemed a tad unnecessary to me.  Then there is the description of emotions, which followed a standard template almost throughout (and sometimes, annoyingly, multiple times in a page):
Cause: Description of the event in one paragraph.
Effect: Description of the resulting emotion in one line.

For instance:
It had been the first time since he’d moved in that she’d spent any time with me on my own, two or three hours on one occasion in nearly two months, that’s all.
 And he was jealous.

Somehow, these one-apparently-loaded line-endings to a paragraph seemed forced, and broke the simple, almost clinical narrative of the book.

The only drawback of the book is so minor that I feel guilty mentioning it here. Indeed, considering the narrative style, the power-packed plot and the delicious cooking, this flaw seems negligible. Though not exactly a fast read, it is a very engrossing one, and can be finished in a couple of sittings. Very strongly recommended for everyone.