Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters - Nadiya Hussain

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

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

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

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

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

Gist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gist:

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

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

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




Monday, 27 March 2017

Everyone Brave is Forgiven - Chris Cleave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gist:

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Lie With Me - Sabrine Durrant

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

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

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

Gist:

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

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


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Granchester Mysteries - Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation

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

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

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


Gist:

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

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

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A Suitable Vengence - Elizabeth George

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

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

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

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

Gist:

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

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

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

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

Thumbs up.




Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey

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

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

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

Gist:

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

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

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

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

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









Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Power of Breath - Swami Sharadananda

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A good book for those looking for alternative therapy for better mental health. 

Disclaimer: I received this book as part of goodreads giveway in return for an honest review.

I studied reiki years ago and practised it for a brief period.  I therefore understand the importance of controlling the breath and as a practitioner of yoga and pranayama, I value and acknowledge the impact it has on our emotional happiness and physical well being. 

Breathing is such a natural thing that we are not aware of it most of the time. However, what we also don't know, is the way we breathe can have an impact on our body too. The book offers an interesting insight into the process of breathing and why is it important to breathe well.

Since I have been taught by someone and not learnt it from books, I was curious how the book could substitute for a instructor.

Gist:

The book explains in neatly divided chapters the various aspects of breathing. It outlines the way we breathe, the technical aspect of it. The subsequent chapters offer various forms of breathing exercises and its effects on your mental state of mind.

What works:

  • Interesting theory with some easy to follow exercises.
  • Simple explanation of the life energy force and how it can help you.
  • There is also background information on regular practice how affects your mental health.
  • You do not have to be in a great physical shape to be able to do these exercises.
  • Most of the yoga exercises are familiar to me, having done them at some point. However, even if someone is not familiar with the practice, there are helpful pictures and easy to read instructions that allow the reader to understand and practice them. 
  • This book works for beginners as well as out of date practitioners like me. The tone is clear, motivating and encouraging. 
What doesn't:
  • It will not give you instant results. If you are looking for something more immediate then you are better off looking for a physically exerting exercise.
  • It is a gradual process, the benefits of which will be felt over a period.
I wanted to be sure that the exercises worked and therefore put them into practice before doing the review. Though I cannot claim any superb benefits, but the fact that I did upto 5 minutes of concentration on my breath made me feel good. For me this was a starting point and I am sure it will only get better from here. My mother has been practicising pranayama for years and swears by its benefits. She claims her asthma is under control thanks to the breathing exercises.

In our fast paced life, even when we take breaks we are not mentally taking one. A lot is being talked about mental health and how it is affecting people in hordes. Pressures of modern life are a big contributor and therefore we need strategies to take care of our mental health equally, if not more than physical health. It is also a well known fact, that mental states translates into physical symptoms and ailments. So taking care of mental health is the first step towards good physical health too. 

This book helps you to pause and look into within for the various answers to questions. It makes you self aware and conscious of what is happening within in. 

For that reason alone, I think this is a great book. A great tool for someone looking into alternative therapy for physical and mental well being.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Family Life - Akhil Sharma

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A story about emigration laced with family tragedy.

I love diasporia stories and Lahiri and Divakaruni are big favourites. But where these writes have glamourised the idea of moving and living in a different country, Sharma explores the dark side of what happens when things don't go to plan.

Family Life with its low profile almost banal title tells a very poignant story of an ambitious family caught in a vortex of unfortunate circumstances. The long term effects as a result of those "three minutes" on the family members, is what the author explores in the book.

Gist:
Ajay is eight when he moves to New York with his mother and older brother Birju. Proud of his ability to get his family over, his father is looking forward to a better life in the states. They have set their hopes on fifteen-year- old Birju who is sitting a test that will get him into a top university. He does make it, but then a family tragedy turns their life upside down. Family life takes a look at what happened to the various members of the Mishra family as absorb the turn of events, making their way in a new culture.

What works:
  • The subject matter is quite sad. But Sharma looks at things very dispassionately yet manages to convey the seriousness and the desolate nature of the situation.
  • The fact that he is a creative writing professor comes as no surprise. He explains how he is fascinated by Hemingway and tries to study his style. There is another article in the New Yorker wherein he outlines the creative process. Reading it made me understand how the author must have stuggled with the book, writing a personal story yet distancing oneself to make it palatable for others. You can find the article here.
  • The killer is the ending. Just when you think he has finished telling his story, he drops a bomb that leaves you stunned, shocked that there isn't more!
  • He has an amazing style. Instead of delving on the emotional side of it, he has refrained from overindulgence and has maintained a detached demeanour. His strength lies in allowing the reader to figure how tough it must have been instead of laying it out. He has an implicit faith in the reader's intelligence and that works well for him. 
What doesn't:
  • It is a depressing story as guardian review rightly calls it "unhappy  emigration". So if sad depressing stories are not your thing, maybe you will feel let down. But having said that, it offers an interesting perspective into an average emigrant family's tough life in the Capitalist States. 
  • The title is boring. I actually stayed away from the book because the title did not intrigue me enough. It was only the rave reviews that drew me towards it.
But then this book has won the Folio Prize and also the Dublin International Literary prize. Although such prizes do not mean it is a good book (I have picked up prize winning books only to be sorely disappointed) this one is really worth the prizes it has won. I read through it in one sitting on a early night in bed. You just cannot put it down.

I love reading the acknowledgements. I have always believed writing though a solitary pursuit, always shines with a good support system. Sharma mentions about how long it took him to write the book (so does the article) and the pain and the struggle that went into it.

For me, a story based on personal experience makes it a lot more genuine. It brings to mind, Sanghera's Boy with a Topknot yet another story with the author's family riding at the heart of it. Like Family life, it draws on an unpleasant family secret that comes to fore years later and how the family copes with it.

If the review has made you curious, you can check out an excerpt of the novel, that appeared as a short story in The New Yorker. 


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Kissed a Sad Goodbye - Deborah Crombie

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A melancholic yet absorbing story

This is one of the earlier books in the Duncan and James series. The duo are still grappling with issues in their personal lives, their relationship still fresh and new to bear the brunt of distractions and priorities.

Crombie has such interesting characters in Kincaid and James both single parents, both producing great results as a team.

Gist:

The body of a beautiful woman is found on an estate. However, when someone reports her missing, the trail takes them to a famous tea makers - Hammonds. James and Kincaid together with the local inspector Janice Coppins get inside the world of tea blending, its exotic flavours and its painful connection to the World War II.

What works:

  • Loved the tea company setting. James does a great job of setting the story in the backdrop of a company, embellishing it with details that is fascinating and shows off her good research.
  • Loved the parallel narrative. I remember the use of the device in another of her later novels and love the way she uses it. However, the world war narrative was a bit disorientating in the beginning, almost boring at times, but then it makes more sense as the story moves on and finally blends into the present. 
  • The suspense was a bit predictable but the run up to it was not. It built the suspense well, while throwing light on different suspects before zooming on THE ONE.
  • The characters are great. The jealous, posh lover, the loyal, insecure assistant, the underrated sibling and the doting, secretive father are great personas. 
What doesn't:
  • Too much detail in the world war story. To me, it sort of weighed down the pace an felt a bit unnecessary.
But then it is always great to see how there is always more, to a whodunnit. The personal lives of the protagnists as they move on from one case to the next keeps on evolving, making for a very interesting side plot.


Monday, 30 January 2017

Apple Tree Yard - Louise Doughty

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A story about relationships or rather the truth of it.

I have always maintained that the onscreen version of a book pales in comparison to its written version. Not in this case.

I heard about Apple Tree Yard when I watched a trailer on the BBC. It sounded great, looked intriguing and I was looking forward to it. After watching the first episode, I couldn't wait for the next one. I headed straight to my local library and got out a copy.

Funnily enough, the beginning was slow, the style was a bit strange and the pace very lethargic. I did not enjoy the first chapter at all. The only thing that kept me going was that I had watched the first episode and could tell therefore where the story was heading.

Gist:

Yvonne Carmichael is a high flying geneticist. She is a middle aged woman with grown up children, enjoying all the hard work that she put in during her children's growing up years.

However, a chance encounter turns into a clandestine affair and then a compulsive habit. And then something happens that transports Yvonne at the Old Bailey court forcing her to defend herself and all that she lived for. Does manage to get off scott free or does she pay for the choices she made?

What works:
  • The language. There is something very compelling about the way she uses words to build a sequence of events and the narrative. 
  • The lead character is believable. It is easy to identify with her. Funny, how you would look at her as accomplished and successful whereas from the other side, it looks all tilted. I read a couple of reviews where the protagnist was berated for her choices. I can imagine that having an affair and expecting it to be something more may be delusional but then what happens to her is definitely not her fault. (I am trying hard not to give the story away!) The rationale behind the character's actions seem to be justified in the story and I could feel sympathetic for her by the end of it. The fact that the character's psyche was so accessible to the reader made me like the story and that is where the story gets another star for it. 
  • The sequence. It is not linear and keeps shifting back and forth until the past catches up with the present. The scene opens in a court and then backtracks to what happened to before then. It is very well done.
  • The suspense is well kept, making you turn that page, one more time.
  • I am a hardcore fan of courtroom dramas and love the dynamics of how words are twisted and prodded to suit a version. It is a gameplay that keeps me hooked and this book did complete justice to it.
  • I also loved the way the central character takes control of the narrative. How we women never take things at face value and tend to read much into it. Our tendency to analyse and overanalyse things can be often our unravelling. Doughty captures the psyche of Yvonne very well. 
  • Her justifications for her actions are a bit unbelievable. However, Doughty makes it believable. How a careless act can then spiral out of control and complicate things. 
What doesn't:
  • I don't think I would have read it, had not been for that compelling first episode. The very writing that bowled me over later, did not initially pull me into the story. 
  • The initial chapters take some patience. The story moves slowly and at times the writing is so subtle, devoid of any emotion.  I suppose that tone of clinical detachment  is what makes the pace hard but it does create an impact. 
I have been reading many reviews where people have either loved or hated it completely. My favourite is where it says-  "Relationships are about stories, not truth." - what we tell ourselves rather than perceiving it for what  it is. Very true. Loved it.  

Friday, 27 January 2017

Churning the Wheels of Time


This post was written for Friday Fictioneers, a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wissoff Fields. 
The writers have to write a 100 word story in response to the photo prompt provided.

PHOTO PROMPT © Al Forbes

Although inevitable, it was still shocking. Watching them strip down the proud mansion was like surgically removing a nostalgic memory.

The vintage cars were the first to go. As the metal machines were wheeled out, they took away with them, the glamour of those grand evenings.

Soon a battle of wills competed over the house and its fate: a stubborn, dwindling past versus a shiny and sniggering tomorrow.

Then the winds of change blew in, heralding a confident yet unpredictable future, snuffing out the archaic at last.

Little did they realise, that today’s future will soon be tomorrow’s past.
  

Let The Dead Speak - Jane Casey

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
 Great story. Superb characters.

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

I love psychological thrillers. Having read so many, I realise it is difficult to come up with a distinct detective duo when there are so many of them in crime fiction. I had never heard of Jane Casey before and it surprised me to discover she had written so many in the Kerrigan series. I loved Kerrigan and the way she and Derwent are such different personas and yet they work great together when it comes to solving cases. 

I read somewhere, Casey's husband is a criminal barrister. So that explains how she get the police aspect of the story so well. It was a joy to read the inner workings of the police system. Reminded me of the TV programme "No offence". Although the only similarity between the two is its focus on inner workings of the police system, it makes you appreciate the constraints under which these police officers operate.

Gist:

Chloe, an 18 year old girl returns home unexpectedly to find herself in a blood stained home and no sign of her mum.

Kerrigan arrives with her new rookie partner Georgia Shaw to investigate. Derwent joins in soon after and you realise these guys have a history. Kerrigan takes on the neighbours as she pieces together what happened and finds out some unsavoury secrets.

What works:
  • The plot. It is interesting and hooks you at the outset.
  • The characters. A bit confusing at first because there is a lot of them. However, the personas become clear as Kerrigan sifts through them to find out the truth.
  • The insight into how thw working of a police team is great. I loved the conversation between Kerrigan and Georgia about the importance of being a team player.
  • I loved the personas of the characters who solve the case. The two characters are intriguing and their partnership a distinct feature.
  • The writing. Even after who" is revealed, the "why" bit keeps you going. It requires a certain amount of skill to handle this and Casey is good at it. The underlying psychological aspects work so well to explain the motive.
  • I loved Maeve Kerrigan as a character: the not so perfect persona who is a great detective. 
  • Also loved the equation between Kerrigan and Derwent. It is an interesting relationship and I am curious to know how they first got together. 
What doesn't:
  • The reference to past makes you feel a bit lost especially if you haven't read the previous book. 
Overall a great book. It was great to find a thriller with such great characters and such a compelling story. Guess, I have goodreads to thank for it.



Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Naughtiest Girl Collection - Enid Blyton

photo courtesy:amazon.com
A great read that I enjoyed again as a mother!

I bought this book when Cheeky was  a year old. As a bookworm, I was keen to pass on my love for reading to my daughter.

So after she turned six and became a fairly goaod reader, I introduced her to Enid Blyton. Naughties Girl Again, was her first book ever. We decided that I will read it to her as a bedtime story. As the story progressed, I could see Cheeky was first intrigued and then hooked on it.

The collection has three stories and we read them all back to back.

Gist:

The story begins when Elizabeth Allen grows to love the school she first hated. She is looking forwards to coming to Whyteleaf boarding school. But this girl has a tendency to get into trouble even when she resolves not to. Will she stay away or find herself in a muddle again?

What works: 
  • It helped that the story is set in a British setting. Cheeky being a school girl herself could identify the school setting and dealing with naughty pupils.
  • There is something endearing about the school series. It allows children to imagine them easily and enjoy them.
  • She loved the whole boarding school setup with the school meeting and everything.
  • The stories are very simple. There is a school and there are good children and bad children. Cheeky could relate to the friends sticking together and punishment for naughtiness bit.
  • The stories have a "moral science" element to it. Blyton can be very preachy at times, rewarding good behaviour and condemning bad. But atleast at this age, the kids accept it without questioning it too much. 
What doesn't:
  • The language is a bit archaic. Cheeky found it funny to see words like "jolly well" . Although, terribly British, such words are not common, certainly not something she uses.
  • However, I realised that as a mature reader, I loved revisiting the story too. It was fun going through my earliest reading favourites and recall why I loved Blyton as a kid. 
Next mission: To introduce the St Clares/Malory Towers books to my daughter.


Monday, 23 January 2017

Writing Down the Bones - Natalie Goldberg

A fantastic read for those into creative writing.

photo courtesy:goodreads.com

I got this book when I was just about to start a writing course. As a journalist, academic writer, copywriter, I had dabbled in different forms of writing and found that creative writing is a different ballgame altogether. I had just started this Becoming a Writer Course and was required to read Dorothea Brande. The course allowed me to meet myself as a writer and demanded us to develop skills to become one.

When it comes to good books on writing, Natalie Goldberg and Brande are talked about in the same breadth. So while buying Brande, I procured a copy of Goldberg as well and found practical ideas that got me to open my notebook and start scribbling. 

It is said that nothing will teach you writing better than getting down to writing. But I have found, that dipping into this book now and again, has given me insight and many answers to queries about writing per se. 

Gist:

Goldberg analyses the craft and the whole mindset of writing - how to write and what to write. In short succinct chapters, Goldberg de constructs the myth of writing and talks us through the process with her no nonsense approach.

What works:
  • If you are a writer who has dabbled in creative writing and worked towards constructing a story, then this book is great. It is great, inspirational and the book really talks to you.
  • It also addresses various issues like where to write and when to write.
  • It allows you to forget the world, inhibitions and get your thoughts on paper. It makes you take yourself seriously as a writer even if what you are writing at the moment is rubbish!
  • I like to consult it when I am in the middle of writing a piece and find it boosts my morale and gives me direction in terms of writing.
  • It was a book written in the 70s but it holds true even today. It is this element that makes this book timeless to me - a classic.
What doesn't:
  • If you are thinking of becoming a writer and are looking for inspiration, then it is nothing but a good read.

But if you want to make it work for you, get down to writing and this book will help you get there!

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Cruising through the Cracks

What started out as a random attempt is now becoming a fruitful association. Super thrilled to be published in Writer's Ezine latest issue. There is nothing like seeing your name in print!


Below is the entry for the picture prompt released for the magazine: 


The punishing sun burns everything in sight.
The battered land is now bereft of life
Forlorn farmer looks around, perks up,
At a wild weed, rising from its place of birth.

Her made up face is ready for the charade
That face of eternal beauty is just a facade
She is happy to strip it off, reveal the cracks
For that one soulful connection that her heart lacks.

The youthful heart was mourning love's loss
His ego bruised, his life up in knots,
Shirking life, he feels no reason to survive
Until, a new face walks by and he revives.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

You Sent Me A Letter - Lucy Dawson

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A promising title for an average plot.

A very arresting title and a tight plot. It sounded just like the right book to settle down for the weekend. The premise sounded very intriguing. I had never heard about Dawson before. I love a good story and even better if it is a thriller.

Gist:

Right before her fortieth birthday Sophie finds a man standing at the foot of her bed. He hands her a letter and tells her to open it right in front of everyone at her birthday party.

Sophie is confused, shocked and left wondering what secret does the letter contain.

What works:
  • It ticks all the boxes. A great title, an intriguing premise and a good central character.
What doesn't:
  • Unfortunately it did not hold interest. It starts off great the letter and all Sophie's attempts to get to the bottom of it. However, after a point, it became too twisty to keep a track off. It was as though the author wanted to keep the reader guessing and kept confusing her.
  • However, so much for the twists in the plot, the end was quite predictable.
An OK read. But that would not deter me from looking out for Dawson's next.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Missing Hours - Emma Kavanagh

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A story  that is both enjoyable and enlightening.

It is a thriller like any other. But what makes it different from the rest is the way it sheds light on an industry that is not so well known.  The kidnap and ransom industry is a very secret and high profile, one full of risks and dangers. Kavanagh has weaved a tale based on it and what a compelling story it is!

Gist: 

DC Leah Mackay is investigating the case of a mother of two girls, who just vanished from the playground. She resurfaces hours later much to everyone but with no recollection of where she had been.

Her brother, DS Finn Hale is investigating a murder of a solicitor. As the brother sister duo get down to work, they cannot help thinking there is a connection between the two and get set to reveal some shocking secrets. 

What works:
  • The story is told through various perspectives. The detectives and the central characters take turns to tell their versions. It is a very fascinating yet complex device. I admit there were times when the police version of it got a bit confusing. However, the case histories were a great read. It got me hooked and it felt like I was learning about something new.
  • The characters are so strong. Ed and Serena Cole, Dominic, Seth and Beck are such significant personas. They have a distinct personalities shaped by their military backgrounds. 
  • A good deal of research has gone into it. As the author admits in the author's note, it was a tough call deciding on how to write about a high profile industry without divulging its dealings. The plot reflects the writer's ability to weave fact and fiction well. Wow!
  • Kavanagh's psychology background shows how she is concerned about the mindset of her characters by laying out pointers for the way they act. Leah can identify herself with Serena and Orla. This prompts her to act in a certain way, as Finn points out. These sublties add to the persona making them well rounded and strong.
  • Her work experience also reveals itself in the way she talks about the police force and the challenges they face. Her characters look humane yet committed to their work, adding strength to the narrative. 
What doesn't:
  • The story gets a bit confusing at the beginning as mentioned earlier. 

A great read, something very different to the other crime thrillers. The writer's style and content both put her in a different league. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

About God and Faith

photo courtesy. hindumantrasandfacts.blogspot.com

Based on a true incident fictionalised for creative purposes.



“Your aunt is worried about her niece not getting married yet. She wants to offer prayers for her at a special temple, few hours away. I am going with her, want to come?” Shika’s mum asked.

While in between jobs, Shika was visiting her parents in India. Temples were not really her thing and she was not exactly devout. However, she decided to make a day trip of it.

So the next day, a car was arranged to pick up them around 7, hoping to get a headstart on the 3 hour journey.

As the car made way through the busy roads, Shika looked out of the window taking in the city life. Students with their headphones plugged in, waiting eagerly at the bus stop. As the car circled the massive public park, sweaty elderly residents were walking along the ringside, getting their early morning exercise before the rush hour traffic kicked in. 

Shops with their shutters half open were preparing for potential footfall. There was movement everywhere. Despite being early morning, the sun was hitting hard already. Soon there will be mad rush for every inch of space on the roads, Shika thought, as office goers will clog the roads in their cars and two wheelers.

As the car curved along the roads moving alongside trucks and buses packed with people, Shika couldn’t help but feel relieved. The best part of being on holiday was, you did not have to be anywhere. No school runs, as she watched a mum talking away to her child sitting behind her with a book in hand. To her, this was India, this vibrating, pulsating beat. People were so busy getting ahead and just surviving that they did not stop for anyone or anything else. Was that a good sign, she wasn’t sure.

As the car moved away from the city and entered the highway, the traffic eased out a bit, the buildings too seemed a bit spaced out. Shika could relax as she no longer jostled against her mother-in-law as the car overtook other vehicles. It felt better as the car 
picked up speed and raced along the highway.

Shika felt herself dozing off and when she woke up, it looked so different out of the window. They were fewer buildings, amid huge patches of land with trees lining up the roadside. There were vehicles on the road, but hardly any people. Soon enough, the car moved along a small road and spotting a man walking by, her aunt rolled down the window as the car slowed down beside him.

“Which way to the Neyveli town?”

“Keep going straight and as the road forks out, take the left” he said.

They kept on going. Clearly, they did not know how to get to the temple and in the absence of any signage, their only hope was seeking a passersby.

They managed to get into the town. The town’s main street was packed with people going about their lives. People instantly recognised them as out-of-towners and came up to us, liberal with their time in explaining directions.

These people probably are used to it, guiding visitors to the temple all the time, Shika thought.   As they drove on, Shika was looking out for a dome or a structure of some kind to indicate a temple. But they found themselves driving past rows of houses, into a quiet residential road instead.

“Look out for a flag on top of the ground floor flat,” the last person to give them directions, had said.

It sounded odd but by this point they just wanted to get to the place. Spotting the flag, they got out of the car.

They walked into what looked like an apartment and as they opened the gate, a gentleman wearing a checked shirt and orange dhoti, his forehead smeared with kumkum and ash beckoned them in.

They walked into a dark entrance that lead to a brightly lit shrine. The floodlights were directly aimed at a small bronze idol seated on a bronze throne, surrounded by mirrors from all sides and huge posters of the goddess.

“Please come in. Do you have an appointment?” The bewildered look on our faces said it all but he persisted.

“Did you call ahead of your journey?” We shook our heads.

 “Ah, I see. Please come in. You see, we always advise devotees to call ahead before they come. We are a family that looks after the shrine and often are open only a few days in a month. People like you who have travelled from far, often have a wasted journey if we are closed. But it looks like you are lucky.”

He asked us to sit down on the carpet laid on the floor.

“Would like me to tell you about the deity?” 

He then launched into a story about how the deity had been in the family for 200 years. The deity apparently appeared in the dream of an ancestor and asked him to look for her idol. After days of searching, the ancestor managed to find the tiny 6 inch idol and the family has been worshipping the deity for generations.

The deity which was a child like form of the goddess was called “Bala”. He brought the goddess to life as he started talking about the various characteristics of the deity. The shrine was her home and she decided who came there. Everyone is allowed into a temple but only a few are allowed into a home, he said.  Today, it was not luck, but her wishes that determined that we could see her. Also, the child goddess had a fondness for chocolates and biscuits and preferred them as offerings instead of the traditional offering of flowers and fruits. My aunt opened up a bag and took out the chocolates. Clearly, she had been briefed about the unusual request.

The deity had the supreme ability to fulfil all that her devotees asked for - Health, glory, children, peace of mind.  In return, the devotee was not expected to follow any ritual, make any donation or promises to the god. This goddess did not believe in “deals”. All that the devotee had to do was believe in her and once the desire was fulfilled, make a journey again to thank her. That was the only condition.

That’s impressive, thought Shika. After seeing temples adorned in gold and the notes offered as donations, this goddess sounded appealing. Shika found, she found herself warming up to the goddess already.

As she looked around, there were pictures lining up the walls of special events celebrated at the shrine. There were also numerous pictures of renowned celebrities in the arts seeking blessings and performing at the shrine. In a corner there was a shelf which had prayer books, beads, small objects that were supposed to help devotees with their troubles.

With soft music playing in the background, the smell of incense filling up the air and the priest’s engaging voice taking them what was clearly an oft repeated story, it was clear how privileged we were about being there. In that aura of spiritual tranquillity, it felt as though this goddess indeed had the power to grant any devotee’s desire.

Shika looked around at her aunt who was listening in rapt attention. As he finished yet another story extolling the virtues of the goddess, he gave her a pictures of the goddess and some red coloured powder kumkum. He asked her to place picture under the person’s pillow and apply the powder to the head. "The desires would be fulfilled," he said with conviction.

After sitting for a couple more minutes, they stood up and made way to the door. The aunt was profusely thanking the priest. As they stepped out, they felt a strange calm. The heat seemed to have lost its bite, the air smelled fresher and the strain of the journey alleviated.
They just stood there in silence, each in their own thoughts when the aunt said, “I think this will work for Priya.”

Priya was Shika's youngest cousin, a high achiever absorbed in her career. She had been married to a colleague for years and the family was looking forward to their baby.  But Shika always got the impression that everyone apart from the couple was interested in the idea.

The real purpose for the 3-hour journey just sunk in.
“Do you honestly think she will keep the picture under her pillow and apply that kumkum even she is not keen on babies,” Shika asked.

“Why not?” her aunt said.

I had my doubts.

But in that deliciously, calming atmosphere, anything seemed possible.



Monday, 16 January 2017

Career of Evil - Robert Galbraith

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
Better romance than crime

I was excited when I got to this one, but alas the excitement quickly turned to despair as I trudged along, desperate for it to end!

A major fan of the Harry Potter Books, I was disappointed by the last two crime novels. This one however, was better, but for different reasons.

Like the last two novels, there is crime and gore, lots of it. However, what makes this one better is the parallel story concerning the personal lives of protagnists. It was that got me through this whodunnit.

Gist:

Robin and Strike have now settled down to their lives chasing obsessed fathers and paranoid men. However, things take a turn when Robin finds a severed body part in post. Suspicions rise when it has a connection to Strike.

It doesn't help that  Robin keeps finding other dismembered body parts belonging to random women attacked in the dead of the night. Soon it becomes apparent that Robin is being stalked and could be a possible victim until Cormoran digs his past and tracks down the killer. 

What works:
  • Cormoran and Robin are such well etched characters. It was a delight getting back to where the other book left off. The troubled relationship between Mathew and Robin, Strike and Robin trying to salvage their failing business and figuring out their feelings for each other.
  • I loved the tension between Robin and Mathew. The way the tension escalates in fact for me that became the focus rather than the crime and who did it.
  • It was the only thing that kept me going, my favourite bit being the cliffhanger.
What doesn't:
  • There is a desperate overdose of crime and gory to justify its position as a crime thriller. However, it is lacklustre and fizzles out.
  • I found myself waiting to find out more about Robin and Strike rather than the figure out the killer.
  • There is such an overdose of crime that it feels desperate. 
  • The search for the killer makes for a very boring read and there are moments of wading through paragraphs just to get to the end.

The way the story ends is a clear indication it will be picked up in Strike's later novel. I look forward to Rowling's sequel in the series for that reason alone I concede this one is the best of the three.