Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Shirley Jackson - We have always lived in the castle

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Mary Katherine Blackwood lives with her older sister Constance and uncle Julian in a large house set in a large ground.  They live in isolation from the village nearby.  Only an acquaintance of their mother's visits them once a week.

Only Merricat (Mary Katherine) walks to the village from time to time to shop for groceries.  These visits are a form of torture for her as she has to put up with mean comments by the people living there.  Little children chase her and sing nasty songs about her family.

The Blackwoods have so long lived in isolation that the people of the village look upon them as freaks of some sort.  Later something happens that reinforces their impression.  Four members of the Blackwood family are poisoned.  Constance is arrested on suspicion of murdering them but is acquitted later.

Merricat loves the fixed routine of their lives.  She cannot bear to see any change in their life patterns. When a visitor talks to Constance about boyfriends and normal life, Merricat feels terrified.  She gets her hackles up when cousin Charles comes calling.  He insinuates himself into their life and Constance makes space for him.  Merricat finds his intrusions ominous and must do something to eject Charles.

This a story that is written with great delicacy. The secrets of the Blackwood family are revealed gradually, tantalizingly.  Uncle Julian is a cripple and obsesses with his notes about the Blackwood poisoning and the subsequent trial.  Constance is seemingly calm and normal, but she is obsessed with cooking and cleaning.  She cannot abide any change in their routine. Merricat likes to work up talismans and spells to keep their lives unchanged.

I read this book years ago during the 1970's.   I remembered nothing but the incident of poisoning, not the name of the book, not the name of the author.  Armed with this information, even google could not help me.  Then I happened to read a book list about Wicked Women in fiction. The synopsis of the book was exactly the one I remembered.  I ordered the book right away and fell to reading it.

What a marvellous bit of fiction this is.  These days books need to portray a twisted protagonist and a plot that has several twists and turns.  In such times, it is such a treat to come upon a book like this which is so beautifully written.  It is almost as if the story is whispered out.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Larry McMurtry - The Desert Rose

+Simon & Schuster Books
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More than a decade ago, I decided to restart my library subscription.  One of the books I drew out was Larry McMurtry's The Late Child.  I was so taken by the book that it remained in my mind.  I returned the book and forgot the author's name with the passage of time.  Luckily, I retained the name of the book in my memory.  Armed with that, I was able to hunt out the name of the author and look for other books by him on Amazon.

It was a bit of a struggle.  Larry McMurtry's books are plentiful but expensive if you want them shipped all the way to India. Not many of his books are available on kindle. For instance, after reading this book, I wanted to re-read The Late Child.  But it is not available on kindle, not even in paperback.  It is out of stock.

Harmony works as a showgirl in Stardust, one of the hotels on the Strip in Las Vegas.  She started work when she was 17.  She has been called the most beautiful girl in Vegas.  Fielding compliments and dealing with admirers has been a part of the job for her.  Now, she is nearing 39.  She has a sixteen-year-old daughter, Pepper, who is much more beautiful than she was.

Harmony and Pepper do not get along.  Pepper prefers to confide in Harmony's friends.  She criticizes Harmony's taste in clothes and men.  Granted, Harmony has not been able to pick good boyfriends. Her husband abandoned her years ago when Pepper was but a baby.  She has since had a string of boyfriends, mostly useless wastrels who have only ruined her life further.

Harmony tries to be sweet and hopeful always.  It is this quality of hers that keeps Gary, a friend, always to her side. Along with Jessie, Myrtle and Gary, Harmony tries to keep her life as happy as she can.  She raises peacocks and tries to deal with poverty, her tiffs with Pepper, and sundry other knocks that life deals her with as much equanimity as possible.

The story, however, is not just about Harmony.  It is also about Pepper.  Pepper is growing up beautiful and is surrounded by admirers of her own.  There is Mel, a rich man who is besotted by her.  Then she gets an offer to star in the very show her mother is a part of. Should she take it or turn it down?

If you like quiet little novels that are not flashy but allow you an insight into various interesting characters, you will love this one. A lot happens here.  A lot is going on in the lives of Pepper and Harmony.  I was so engrossed in the novel that despite being extremely busy at the moment, I finished it in record time.

The characters are completely human.  They are replete with flaws. A bit crazy even.  Take Harmony's obsession with peacocks, or the way Myrtle is deeply in love with her goat, Maud.  Jessie loves her little dog more than her boyfriend. Mel loves Pepper to distraction, but not sexually, which frustrates her.  All these characters and their quirks perk up the novel no end.  It makes them memorable and interesting.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Madhulika Liddle - Crimson City

+Hachette India
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Delhi has turned into a Sin City. First, a cloth merchant, Aadil, has been brutally murdered for no apparent reason.  He had no enmity with anyone.  His stock of expensive cloth has been mauled but not stolen.  His clerk, Suraj Bhan, is puzzled over the sudden murder of his boss. Then, the family next door to Aadil suffers a similar misfortune.

As usual, Muzaffar is intrigued by the murders and rushes in to help.  He is brought up short by his brother-in-law, Khan Sahib, the kotwal of Delhi.  He is asked not to interfere in no uncertain terms. Muzaffar is pained by this edict and he tries not to meddle with the course of law.  But things keep happening right in his path and he cannot just look away.

Our beloved Muzaffar is now happily married to Shireen.  A partner more perfect than Shireen would be hard to find.  He should be enjoying domestic bliss in peace.  But he cannot help being in the eye of the storm.  Far from resenting his preoccupation with crime, Shireen encourages him and even helps him.

Will Muzaffar be able to figure out who is committing the spate of crimes?  Will he be able to mend fences with Khan Saheb?

The new Muzaffar Jang mystery is engrossing.  What makes it all the more interesting is the era it is set in.  This is Shah Jahan's Dilli. We are led through bazaars and darwazas that are still familiar to us.  Little bits of historical information is slipped in to make the book rich in detail.

I was glad to see all the old characters here, Akram is my favorite. He is Muzaffar's cousin.  He is a dandy nawab and utterly lovable. There were plenty of new characters who are equally interesting. Suraj Bhan, Aadil's clerk is one.  Ameena bibi, the servant of the family that lives next door to Aadil, is another.  Then there is Nilofer Begum.  Is she just the wife of a merchant or something more?

There were just two little bumps in the story.  The author pauses a couple of times to put in a historical detail.  When the story is trotting along at a quick pace, a pause for a historical detail trips up the narrative.  

The story moves at a brisk pace.  The detailing is magnificent.  I just love Muzaffar Jang and cannot have enough of him.  I am already waiting eagerly for the next.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Erica Jong - Sappho's Leap

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Sappho lived in Lesbos, Greece in 320 BCE and precious little is known about her life.  Very little of her work has survived.  Most of her poems come down to us in fragments, bits of papyrus that survived somehow the ravages of time.  Whatever that has survived, however, has amazed many of the poetry aficionados of this era.

stars around the beautiful moon

hide back  their luminous form
whenever all full she shines

on the earth


-translated by Anne Carson in If not, winter


Precious little is known about the life of Sappho.  What survives from all those ages ago is more legend than certified truth.  Erica Jong calls it a blessing, as it allows her to weave a story more imaginatively.

In her tale, Sappho is the daughter of a soldier, Scamandronymus and Cleis.  She has three younger brothers, all fine lads.  Her father dies in a battle when Sappho is still a child.  Her mother becomes the mistress of Pittacus, their ruler.

When grown, Sappho finds love in the arms of Alcaeus, a poet philosopher and a soldier who has lost favor with Pittacus.  Sappho runs away with him, but is brought back and married to an older man.  Her mother says it will keep her safe.  A rich older man will not worry her much for sex and be pliant to her wishes.  Sappho finds herself pregnant and is sure that the child is Alcaeus's.

Sappho has a merry time in Syracuse with her husband, enjoying riches and freedom.  She is very attached to her slave Praxinoa and often makes love to her, to compensate for her loveless marriage.
She is sought after greatly as a poetess and performs often at symposia.

Her husband's death jolts her out of her complacency and she finds all the riches slipping away from her hands.  She follows her brothers to Egypt along with Praxinoa.  There she meets and befriends Aesop who is famed at coining fables.

In short, she meets every famous name of her day.

Erica Jong also has her go on a very Odysseus like journey, fraught with dangers and visits to islands filled with fantastic people, centaurs, amazons, snake goddesses etc.

It is this part of the book that made me weary.  An account of Sappho's everyday life is lovely.  When Sappho returns from her journey back to Lesbos, the island of her birth, the story becomes a little better.  

I found the first few chapters quite engrossing and unputdownable. The later parts not so much.

If you want to read Sappho's poetry, the best place to look is Anne Carson's translations of her fragments, "If not, Winter".  They are simply fabulous.  Anne Carson does not try to embellish or interpret the fragments into something more.  She is lyrical and faithful to the original.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Kiran Manral - All Aboard

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+Penguin India

Kiran Manral serves up this frothy holiday romance with panache.

Rhea has just been jilted at the alter by Samir.  Her fiance bailed out and ran off with a young thing, leaving her heartbroken and tending to the mundane jobs like cancellataions and refunds.

Rhea's aunt,  Rina has also been ditched.  She was to go on a Mediterranean cruise with her friend who fell sick at the last minute.   Rhea was the best choice to fill in the gap.  This is why Rhea and Rina are now on a lovely cruise through the Mediterranean sea.

On the cruise, Rhea barely gets time to cry over her stalled wedding and broken heart.  Rina Maasi has run into an ex-student of hers, Kamal Shahni.  Rhea finds herself torn between indulging in a sinful holiday romance and also trying not do anything too silly on a rebound from Samir.

What can poor Rhea do? Everywhere she turns she runs into the delectable Kamal.  Kamal does not seem too immunie to Rhea's charms either.

This is a typical romance, a light read.  There are plenty of lovely descriptions of the beautiful places that the cruise takes Rhea through.  Also there is a bit of intrigue in the book to spice things up.

The characters are interesting, Rhea, Kamal, Rina, Naina, Sonia, John, are all well etched.  The story does not stray around much and keeps to its path.

It is a perfect holiday/travel/beach/romance read.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Zeenat Mahal - Haveli

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Chandani was abandoned by her father as a baby and brought up by her aristocratic grandmother after her mother's death.  She is confined to indoors, being home schooled.  Most of her time she is being trained in social graces by her grandmother.  She feels stifled by all this.

Luckily there is the handsome widower Kunwar Rohail Khanzada.  She has been in love with him forever and intends to make him hers, by hook or by crook.  Kunwar is completely oblivious to her, but she is sure she can wear down his defences.  She is beautiful and young.

Just then Taimur enters the picture. Chandani hates him instantly.  He is handsome, she admits, but such arrogance!  They spat with each other and he seems intent on putting her down everytime they have an encounter.  To her horror, everyone around them seems to think Taimur is perfect husband material for her.  She flings away the engagement ring with which the Grandmother, that interfering Broad, tries to announce the engagement between Taimur and her.

Her father turns up again from London, trying to ingratiate himself with the family again.  He has in his tow a most delicious man of perfect manners.  He seems interested in setting up a match between his daughter and this man of his choice.

Zeenat is overcome with emotions at the return of her father.  She is not oblivious to the animosity between him and her grandmother. She realizes that she has to choose between the two men who are vying for her affection.  

Haveli is the perfect light romantic read.  It is witty, well-plotted and well-written.  It had a slightly slow first chapter, after which it did not lag at any point.  There is no meandering, no posturing, no pretending to be anything but a good read.



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