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.