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.