Thursday, January 29, 2015

Paula Hawkins - The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is climbing the best seller charts and is creating a lot of buzz. It is likely to be made into a movie as well. All this talk about the book made me order it right away.

The story is intriguing. Rachel is a mess. She got divorced two years ago when her husband, Tom, left her for another woman. She finds it hard to blame him for the divorce. She was a drunkard and out of control. Any man in his sane mind would be disgusted with her. Her drinking problem made her lose her job. She lives with a school friend, Cathy. She cannot afford to let Cathy know that she has lost her job, for the fear of being turned out of the room she rents in Cathy's flat.

So, she makes a daily trip to London on the train, keeping up a pretense of going to work. The problem is, the train stops at Witney station. This is where she used to live with Tom, and where Tom now lives with Anna, his new wife. She lives with the pain of passing by her old house every day. She finds herself fixating on another house close to hers, and often looking at a handsome young couple on their terrace.

Rachel makes up stories about this golden couple, and calls them Jess and Jason. She is convinced that they live an ideal life, full of love and laughter. Until one day when she discovers that the wife is missing. She catches the story in the papers and thinks she has a clue as to who killed her, from what she had seen on the terrace one day.

She goes to see the police, and tell them what she knows. She also falls back into obsessing about her ex-husband, and spirals more and more out of control, falling into an irreversible pattern of drinking.
She finds herself pursuing the mystery of the missing woman and getting more and more into a mess.

The story is told in the voices of three women, Rachel, Anna and Megan (the missing woman). The story draws you in immediately, and, despite its dark tone, you find it is hard to let it go.

The women dominate the novel, the voice and the opinion is all theirs. Even the police, who are investigating the mystery, seem to be rather subdued. If the women had not kept stirring the issue up with their actions, I am afraid, the mystery of missing Megan would have dwindled away in case files.

The book has been compared to Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl". Both books are full of dark, damaged characters. But there is hardly any other resemblance. The Girl on the Train is definitely not a copycat novel. In fact, I liked it much more than "Gone Girl".

The novel moves at a steady pace. Two or three suspects are insinuated at so we may keep wondering about the culprit. I am afraid I kind of 'saw' who the villain was. But even so, it was hard to imagine the 'why' of the action.

The end was a lot more dark than I anticipated, and I went away from the book feeling rather depressed.

It was a satisfying read, and one I would surely recommend to all.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Vani - The Recession Groom

The Recession GroomThe Recession Groom by Vani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Parshuraman Joshi is a Punjabi Brahmin with roots in Chandigarh. He studies and works in the USA. He is rather under the thumb of his bossy aunt, Parvati, who has nurtured him. He is 27, earning well and ripe for marriage.

His sister Ragini and aunt Parvati try to outdo each other in looking for a perfect girl for Parshuraman. Poor Parshuraman starts feeling more like a commodity than a person as eager Mamas with young daughters pursue him.

However, the book is not all about funny situations. Parshuraman faces real tragedy when he faces problem at work. He has to find out where his heart really is before he can make crucial decisions about work and love.

The characters in the story, especially, Aunt Parvati, her daughters Tia and Ana, Ragini, Parshuraman, Bill, Jennifer, Tara, Uncle Ravi are all believable people with quirks and foibles that make them very human. However, the character I fell absolutely in love with, was Parshuraman's Grandmother, his Nani. She is an irascible woman with a loving heart. She is more modern than any of her granddaughters.

Vani keeps the language of the book simple and clear. There are no linguistic shenanigans here to annoy you. Yes, there was a bit or two where the dialogue felt a bit labored and stiff, but it did not rankle.

The story keeps moving on effortlessly. There is no situation in the book that seems contrived. It is as if you really are witnessing a part of someone's life.

This is Vani's debut novel. Hard to believe that, she writes like a Pro.

Welcome to the world of writing, Vani. May your lovely novel meet all the success it deserves.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Deepanjana Pal - The Painter

I recently got an opportunity to watch the Ketan Mehta film Rang Rasiya. The film is based on the life of Raja Ravi Varma, the famous painter. Since I was impressed by the stunning visuals and the film in general, I wrote a blogpost about it. But then, when one of my friends, Pamir Harvey, raised a question about the film’s plot, I realised I’d written nothing about the plot as such.

Even as I was watching the film, I was wondering about the veracity of its story. I realised I knew next to nothing about the subject. In fact, I did not even know that Raja Ravi Varma belonged to Kerala. I suspected some elements of the movie’s plot were highly fictionalised. I therefore set out to read the book the movie was based on. Raja Ravi Varma, by Ranjit Desai.

As the book was being downloaded on my Kindle, I noticed The Painter by Deepanjana Pal being offered as a reading option by Amazon. As things turned out, I ended up buying this book as well. I wasn’t sure it was about Raja Ravi Varma, so I started reading a bit of it. The first chapter itself gripped me so much, that I found myself hooked to it, and reading it in all the spare time I could find. Which, as such, is not much.

The book starts with the birth of Ravi Varma in Kilimanoor in Travancore district of Kerala. We are carefully painted a picture (pun unintended) of the background of those times. The way families functioned in Kerala, the basis of the matrilineal society prevalent in Kerala of those days. Details about the way children were brought up, the importance of each family member – these are all put out for us to better understand the times that Ravi Varma grew up in.

The background of his family makes us understand how Ravi Varma, born in a little village, had good grounding in the arts. His mother was a poet and wrote operas. His father loved reciting Sanskrit poems that spoke about tales from Mahabharata and Ramayana. He was fluent in Sanskrit and Malyalam.

It was his uncle who recognised the talent in him and encouraged him to learn more. He took him to the Thiruvananthapuram court and gave him wings. The rest was up to the boy himself. Ravi was taken to the court of the Raja to be a consort for the Princess. The Raja dismissed his candidature on the ground that Ravi was 'too dark'. But the Raja did ask the boy to stay in the court and learn painting to his heart's content.

It was not an easy task to learn, the boy soon found out. There were other painters who guarded their craft jealously. More than that, the boy wanted to learn more about oil painting, a medium that fascinated him. Oil painting was brought to India by British painters who had followed the British presence in India. But they too, guarded their secrets jealously. Ravi Varma had to bribe an assistant to the court painter to teach him the secrets of mixing oil paints to get the right color he wanted.

Like Eklavya, he watched, learned and perfected his art. His chance to show his craft came soon when Theodore Jenson visited Thiruvananthapuram in 1868. He was loath (like other painters) to allow a gifted painter to watch him work and learn from his techniques. But the Raja was a fond mentor to Ravi, and he pressurised Jenson into letting Ravi watch him paint. Along with Jenson, Ravi also painted a picture of the King and his beautiful wife, Nagercoil Ammachi. 

This was the starting point for Ravi Varma. After a pilgrimage to a nearby temple, Ravi Varma decided to become a professional artist. From there, his life was a series of commissions and untold success.

All through the book, Deepanjana Pal describes the political and social scenario of the times. This helps us to see the man, Ravi Varma, as he was. He was a pioneer in his field. He learned and honed his craft on his own. He had to find ways and means to get further in his profession. His uncle, Raja Raja Varma had grounded him well in how to handle the political situation around him to his advantage. 

India was still nothing but a whole lot of kingdoms ruled by major, or minor, Kings. They had the means to make or break an artist. On top of this, Ravi Varma had to deal with the British who ruled India. 

Ravi Varma was known as a gregarious person. He loved recounting stories, going to concerts, attending parties. He was well loved by his friends and they did as much as they could to further his career.

Deepanjana Pal is also a seasoned art critic, and she discusses the major paintings that Ravi Varma
painted at various points in his career. She gives us a fair criticism of the background, strengths and shortcomings of his art. She discusses the effect his art had on people. At no time does she get too involved in the life of Ravi Varma. She keeps herself at a distance and stays non-judgmental. Yet she never makes any excuses for him.

Ravi Varma's wife, Bhagirathi, is a woman in the shadows. There is little to know about her. The couple had five children, two sons and three daughters. As was the custom, Bhagirathi lived in her maternal home, of Mavelikara, while Ravi Varma visited her. Deepanjana surmises what the life of his wife must have been like. Maybe Bhagirathi was a shy, retiring sort of a woman. Maybe she was content to stay in her little cocoon, happy with the visits of her husband, not too bothered to see him going away.

She steers clear of going into Ravi Varma's indiscretions. He did use prostitutes as models, and was supposed to be close to one of them, Anjanabai Malpekar. He was supposed to have had affairs with his
models. She admits that, and moves on.

In the book, we learn all we can about the place art was in, at the time. We learn all about the state of society. We learn the key political events of the time. We learn, of course, all about the life and times of Raja Ravi Varma.

Deepanjana Pal keeps her style very documentary and matter of fact. She has tried to weave in bits of fiction at times, but that is just to give us a better idea of the happenings, to illustrate the event that is happening.
It is a lovely book that any lover of art, fiction, history, society and politics should read. It is a book that gives us a comprehensive look at the life and times of Raja Ravi Varma.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Banana Yashimoto - Kitchen

KitchenKitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book I had wanted to read for a long long time. The price of the book was rather steep and that deterred me from ordering it right away.

I looked for the book in libraries and second hand book shops without any success. Until one fine day I chanced upon an e-book version.

The book came highly recommended and it lived up to the expectations I had built up around it.

Mikage is a young girl who lost her parents very early and lived with her grandmother. When her grandmother also dies, she falls into a sea of despondency. She breaks up with her boyfriend and struggles to pass her days. She finds succor in spending time in a Kitchen. Cooking food, eating and cleaning help her keep her sanity.

Her friend Yuichi helps her by taking her to live with him. He stays with his mother Eriko. Eriko is actually Yuichi's father who is a transgender and prefers to be known as Eriko's mother.

Soon Mikage will have to console Yuichi through very dark times.

The novel is about coping with loss. It is not a cheerful topic. Yet we do not fall into despair while reading the book. The novel works with the idea of dealing with loss instead of falling into darkness, hence it gives us hope, that soon things will be better for Mikage and Yuichi.

The language is beautiful. The story moves lyrically and we are carried along on waves of a beautifully told story.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Arkady Gaidar - Chuck and Geck

Chuck and GeckChuck and Geck by Arkady Gaidar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We know little of world literature. It is not entirely our fault. Very few of the books written in other languages are translated or distributed. One of the offshoots of Communism was the availability of Russian literature. Beautifully produced and translated books in Russian were available at subsidised rates to us. Through one such agency that specialised in Russian Literature - Punjab Book Centre - I read many wonderful books by Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dosteovsky, Maxim Gorky. We may have heard of Tolstoy, but not the others, I am sure, were it not for the 'propaganda' literature distributed far and wide by the Russians.

Among the books scattered around my house, I found this book about two naughty little boys who throw away a telegram by their father. As a result of this, they find themselves in an abandoned camp in Siberia at the end of a very long train journey. The book remained in my mind, a sweet story about two energetic young children and their young mother.

I tried to look for the book, not an easy task when you do not remember either the name of the book, or of the author. On an impulse, a few days ago, I typed the theme of the book into google in an attempt to locate something about the book.

This time, I hit paydirt, and found not only the name of the book and the author, but also a pdf file of the story. I was thrilled. And of course, I read the story through. It was such a sweet little tale of two little boys and their adventures in Siberia.

The book was written by Arkady Gaidar, who wrote several books and was a notable member of the Bolshevik party. He died young, serving his country. From this book, I gauge he was an excellent writer as well.

The story goes like this. Chuck and Geck live in Moscow with their mother. Their father is a Geologist who is away in Siberia. The father wants them to visit him for Christmas and New Year. A few days later he sends a telegram which the children lose.

When they reach the remote camp after days of travel, they find it abandoned. Luckily there is a watchman present. He is a grumpy old man, not pleased by this sudden intrusion. He leaves them at the camp in his hut, with a few provisions and some wood for the fire and goes on a mission.

In his absence the young mother has to work hard to keep herself and the boys warm and fed. They have some adventures too which could turn very serious.

It is a beautifully written book and something all children should read. Alas, it is not a book that we will find on bookshelves of our neighbourhood stores, not any more.

I see that this was made into a film as well. Now my next mission is take a look at the movie as well.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ravi Subramanian - God is a Gamer

God is a GamerGod is a Gamer by Ravi Subramanian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book as a review copy from Vivek Tejuja, though the book is signed by Ravi Subramanian himself. I must confess that Indian writers disappoint me more often than not. Hence I approached the book with trepidation.

It started well. The book was well written. The language was clear and simple. There was no attempt to be 'witty' or 'smart'. This was a relief. Many a good book has been ruined for me because the writer tried to be funny in every sentence. Big Mistake! Not everyone can pull off a P G Wodehouse style.

The story is about three friends, Aditya, Sundeep and Swami. They started their career together at NYIB (New York International Bank). Swami is still with the bank, hoping for the top slot. Sundeep and Aditya have a financial services firm, having left the bank long back.

They find themselves embroiled in a financial scandal of international proportions. There are murders, heists and intrigues that are way over their heads. In fact, the facts are not known completely to anyone.

The story criss-crosses between USA, India and some other countries. There is a cast of characters that include the USA President, Finance Minister of India, FBI, CBI and our 3 friends and their families.

The story goes at a good pace. You are kept turning pages. The explanations are clear and the financial intrigues are understandable to lay readers (for instance, Me!)

Too much information was stuffed into the last chapter. But it did make the story fall into place.

Here is a very very decent thriller by a writer from our own country. We are familiar with many American authors doling out such books. There was a time when I read many of these. But that was when Arthur Hailey and such like ruled the roost. I am not sure who the current hottie is - Lee Child? James Patterson? Some time back I read the "Millennium trilogy" by Steig Larsson. This book falls in the same category.

Bravo! Ravi Subramanian. Keep writing and may you meet great success.

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