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 Yoshimoto - 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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Saturday, October 04, 2014

Anna Elliott - Pemberley to Waterloo - The Pride and Prejudice chronicles

Pemberley to Waterloo (Pride & Prejudice Chronicles, #2)Pemberley to Waterloo by Anna Elliott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Anna Elliott's Georgiana Darcy's diary. It was among the first books I downloaded on kindle. It was a fun look into the world of Jane Austen.

We look further into the lives of the other characters of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy are happy together. Elizabeth is expecting her first child, Jane Bingley has a daughter and is happy in her home.

Caroline is still haughty and aloof, but visits Pemberley from time to time. Georgiana is engaged to Col. Edward Fitzwilliam. They are happy to be together and are looking forward to getting married. But then, Napolean happens. Edward gets called away to serve as the aide-de-camp of the Duke of Wellington.

There is a lot of action and romance in the book. Georgiana takes on the role of Emma at times, playing matchmaker. At times she turns into Florence Nightingale. At times she is just a worried girl pining and worrying for her Fiance.

This book is even more fast paced and action packed than the earlier Georgiana Darchy's diary. The only thing that rankled was how she converts the previously perceived as 'bad' characters into 'good' ones. Spare us the sugar Anna! Give us some spice. We like mean girls.

I found it fun to take a peek again into the world of the beloved characters of Pride and Prejudice and see what's up with them. Next up is Kitty Bennett's diary, where she tries to find a match for Mary. Fun!

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Charlaine Harris - Dead Until Dark - Sookie Stackhouse

Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, #1)Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had long wanted to read a Sookie Stackhouse book. A fellow blogger, Priya, was a great fan of Vampire fiction. She would often come out with lovely reviews of several series of Vamp Fiction, and I would go 'meh'. (In a nice way - I loved Priya's reviews but could not warm up (irony?) to Vamp fiction.)

Priya had recommended Sookie Stackhouse to me as a good way to get initiated into Vamp Fiction. I spent years searching for the book on various library shelves. Now that I have a kindle, it was breeze to download the book.

I was not able to read much through September. But yet, I managed to finish the book.

It is possibly a good introduction into the world of VF. Sookie is an engaging character. She is rich, but chooses to live in a small town of Bon Temps in Northern Louisiana and works in a bar as a cocktail waitress. She is pretty, but finds it hard to date. She is put off because she can hear the thoughts of all around her. And listening constantly to her date thinking about her does not appeal to her.

This is a world where Vampires roam freely among Humans, trying to 'mainstream', blend in. They drink synthetic blood or feed on consenting Humans. Not killing them, but just take a sip or two of their blood. And the reverse is possible too, drinking Vampire blood can make Humans strong. There are Humans who do not tolerate Vampires and vice versa.

Against this backdrop, a lot of cocktail waitresses are getting murdered. The Vampire that Sookie is sweet on, Bill, is suspected of the killings, as all the waitresses were involved with Vampires. Jason, Sookie's brother was also involved with all the dead girls. Jason is a bit of a philanderer, but not a killer, or is he? Sookie finds she has to act to discover who is behind the killings.

The book is good for a quick read. It is very well written. The story is fast paced. But of course, you have to be curious about Vampire fiction to do it. If you are crazy about it, chances are you have already read these books.

I am pretty sure the rest of the books in the series are equally good. I suppose I shall be reading them from time to time.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ava Dellaira - Love Letters to the Dead

Love Letters to the DeadLove Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I could not resist marking this book for reading when I read the name of the author. Ava Dellaira. We share the same first name.

As the title shows, the book is written as a series of letters to dead people who the narrator, Laurel, idolizes. Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, Judy Garland, E.E. Cummings, John Keats, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earheart, Janis Joplin, Allan Ginsberg, Jim Morrison, Elizabeth Bishop.

All these people died young and faced troubles in their life. Yet, they created everlasting art and things of beauty.

Laurel has faced a lot of tragedy over the past few years. Her parents separated. May, her beautiful older sister died. May was in High School and full of promise and beauty. Soon after this, her mother left to go to California.

Feeling abandoned, Laurel keeps her secrets pent up inside her and tries to live. She changes her school and avoids all people from her previous life. But her past keeps looming up ahead and prevents her from any future happiness.

Laurel's English teacher sets them an assignment to write a letter to a dead person. Finding unexpected relief in this, Laurel starts writing letters to dead people and tells her story through them.

The book is very beautiful and emotional. In the end Laurel finds it is not just her, but also people around her - her Father, Mother, Aunt Amy, boyfriend Sky, friends Hannah, Natasha, Tristan and Kristen - who are looking for answers to their problems.

Together they join hands and help each other to make their life more bearable and try to find answers.

The book is pretty heavy and depressing at times. It is not easy to read a book where such young people are so unhappy.

The writing is simply very beautiful. I would recommend the book just for that.

The book is full of references to good art, music, poems, films.

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N.E. Brown S.L. Jenkins - Galveston, 1900, Indignities, The Affirmation

Galveston, 1900, Indignities, The Affirmation (Book #4)Galveston, 1900, Indignities, The Affirmation by N.E. Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the final book in the Galveston series by N.E. Brown and S.L. Jenkins.

The authors are a mother-daughter duo who have crafted these books together. The mother, Brown, did all the research and the daughter, Jenkins, did the writing. Together they have turned out four highly readable books.

The books are not merely frothy romances. Catherine Merit has to face a lot of dark happenings in her life. She was abducted by David Brooks, a thorough criminal who killed Catherine's mother.  She had lived a terrible life with him, being raped and beaten repeatedly.

Starting from her first Thanksgiving in Galveston, U.S.A., Catherine faces a series of setbacks that prevent her from having a happy life.

In the last book, Catherine is recovering from an attempt to rape her. She killed the man Joe Brady, who was trying to have his way with her. The local main man, Micheal Atwood has a thing for her and Catherine finds it hard to cope with his forced attentions.

Catherine finds love slipping away from her once more and seems resigned to spending the rest of life alone. But there is a handsome new stranger in her life. But will he stay with her once her finds out about her past?

This novel is as gripping and free flowing as the rest in the series. My only grouse was that the story moved away from Galveston. The lovely seashore city does feature in this book, but not as prominently as I had hoped.

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N.E. Brown, S.L. Jenkins - Galveston: 1900: Indignities, Atonement

Galveston, 1900,Indignities, The Atonement, Book ThreeGalveston, 1900,Indignities, The Atonement, Book Three by N.E. Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The adventures of Catherine Merit continue in the third book in the series. Catherine is heartbroken over the death of her first husband, and is equally devastated when her second husband, Alex Cooper is shot in the head and loses his memory.

Their marriage is annulled but not before Catherine finds herself with child again. She has 3 children, all from different fathers. And she is barely 21.

She cannot sit and mope over the nasty hand fate has dealt her. She starts working at the hospital and meets the handsome doctor Samuel. Is Samuel the right person for her or is she doomed to spending time alone?

Some ghosts from her past life chase her out of Galveston. She finds herself in Rosenberg, Texas. She sets up a private practice there and tries to rebuild her life in a country house with her children.

The novel is as gripping as the first too. The story moves at a fast pace. I was so into the story, that I bought the kindle edition of the books practically back to back.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Edith Wharton - The Age of Innocence

For most people, the trouble with classical literature is that it is usually very lengthy and boring in stretches. This is one reason it is not read more often. But then, often opinion differs. There are people (yes there are!) who can read nothing else.

 Even Charles Dickens, one of the most beloved of classical authors, suffers from wordiness. Of course, his manner of producing novels was different. His books were often serialized. He wrote at a time when people had few other forms of entertainment and people preferred a long story.

These days there are multiple claimants on a reader's time. There are television series to be watched, Facebook to be checked, Youtube that beckons. As do movies, memes, twitter, flicker, games. Games on your desktop, laptop, mobile. Older readers usually have taxing jobs, household chores, and responsibilities. Times are no longer leisurely and relaxed.

Only a die hard fan of books reads. And they find it hard, yes, even a fan of the classics like me, finds it hard to go through a tome full of digressions and descriptions and all that. Read half a chapter, a passage slowly, and savor it. It is certainly rewarding. But it is hard for me to glue myself to a long book now. I can read Anna Karenina. I find it fascinating. I can read passages from Pickwick Papers and smile. Jane Austen is fine. She is timeless. But I do find it a pain to go through a very long book at a sitting like I used to.

I received several recommendations for The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. The book constantly peeked out of all must-read lists. But my usual fears about reading classics belonging a century ago stopped me. Classical literature is usually available for very little, even free mostly. That was the clincher. Also the face that this was the book that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921, the first ever awarded to a woman. I started reading the book.

To my pleasant surprise, the book was an easy read. It is one of the most readable of Classical literature, I feel. The story flows like a smooth river and you glide along the pages without realizing the passage of time. It is a very modern novel of manners and can fool you into thinking its a simple romance. It is not of course. 

The story is set in the background of very upper class New York set of families. They are a small and an exclusive group. Most have links of old money and lineage. They abhor vulgar displays of money or manners. Their exacting standards make them an impenetrable aristocracy of sorts. Without any Royal blood, of course. Royalty, if any, has to come visiting from England or Europe.

These few families have a set behavior pattern as well. Their life is predictable and that is how they like it. Change is slow and imperceptible. It starts when Newland Archer spots the girl he intends to be affianced to, May Welland, sitting in an opera box with her cousin Countess Olenska. Countess Ellen has returned to New York after separating from her husband, a Polish Count. She was aided in this flight from her marital home by her husband's secretary. She lived with him for a while. This is a fresh scandal. It lends a taint to the family of May. The family rallies around Ellen so she may get the support of the Society and also so that the immediate relations of Ellen are able to maintain their social position.

In the backdrop of this quaint social drama, Newland finds himself irresistibly attracted to the beautiful, intelligent Ellen. She is the kind of a soul mate he was looking for. She is fond of the arts and is full of deep humanity that Archer finds lacking in his circle. However, he is already committed to May and he intends to honor his commitment.

Edith Wharton gives us a very intimate, a very detailed glimpse into this Neo-Aristocracy just at the cusp of change. It is still the 1870s when people used a train or a brougham to travel. They communicated using notes, and dressed for dinner, and men smoked cigars in the Library after dinner. It is like a last sigh for fine living as it used to be.

This is the beautiful backdrop in which May, Ellen and Newland play out their little drama, a drama that is barely perceptible to the others. A sense of reality prevents the author, I can only assume, from inserting too much drama in the passion of Newland Archer for Ellen Olenska. Though he yearns for her, and makes his feelings plain to Ellen from the start, it is obvious that something stops him from acting on his desires.

It is May, in my opinion, who really steals the show. She is seen as a shallow, self centered being given entirely to the conventions of her set. Yet she displays flashes of understanding and manipulates the events to her advantage. Rather, it seemed to me, despite being the 'heroine' it is Ellen who pales into the shadows. 

The novel has a fine climax, and an excellent ending. The whole book flows smooth and neat, without any messy digressions. Edith Wharton has a very natural style. The book was written in 1920, which could be a reason why the language is not stilted. Yet, we have to remember she was a contemporary of Henry James. And Henry James is hard to read!

The Men, Women and the Manners of the period are beautifully depicted. It is indeed a must read classic.

I find the social set up of the characters of this book so similar to the one practiced in Middle and Upper Middle classes in India. Saving face, maintaining a hypocritical stance, being anxious about the opinion of others, doing things merely because they are done in the same way for as far as anyone can remember - all these things are very familiar to me. Mothers being picky about the matrimonial choices of their children, nudging them towards the right one is so Indian. It is strange to see that the society has evolved so much in USA and Europe, but not so much in India. Our opinions and reactions are still equal to those adopted by western countries a century ago!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

N.E. Brown S.L. Jenkins - Galveston 1900 : Indignities, The Aftermath

Galveston, 1900,Indignities, The Aftermath, Book TwoGalveston, 1900,Indignities, The Aftermath, Book Two by N.E. Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first of the The Galveston Quartet consists of Galveston 1900 : Indignities, The Arrival which I have reviewed earlier. The second in the series is Galveston 1900 : Indignities, The Aftermath.

During the climatic portion of the first book, it is the devastating storm of 1900 that changes the tranquil world of Catherine Merit. She has come through a lot of struggles.

Catherine had arrived in Galveston, Texas as a young girl of sixteen from Sandgate, England. She had accompanied her mother to USA after the rest of their family was wiped out in a tragic series of illnesses and accidents.

Soon Catherine finds herself in St. Mary’s orphanage when her mother is killed by David Brooks, a pathological serial killer. She is rescued from the orphanage and looks forward to a happy married life with John Merit. But David Brooks is now fixated on Catherine and will not rest until he has kidnapped and ravaged her.

Aftermath brings Catherine to Beaumont, Texas. Her life with John Merit was ruined when the storm freed David Brooks from the prison. He returns to kidnap Catherine again. This time he takes her far away and threatens her with bodily harm to her and others if she dares escape.

Is Catherine doomed to spend her life as a captive of the psychopathic David Brooks? Or will the kind Alex Cooper, who has taken a shine to Catherine, do something to rescue her?

When the novel started, the first chapter or so was a bit of a drag. This was because it was a recapitulation of the previous book. Once the story got into its stride it was again a smooth eventful read, just like the preceding book in the series, The Arrival.

The book is beautifully researched and depicts the way of life a hundred years ago in the fast developing State of Texas in the USA. From the clothes the women wore, the way they traveled (by a buggy mostly), the way policing was done, how basic the methods of criminal investigation were, the way people lived, their dependence on churches. All these details make the turn of the previous century come alive.

The story is very compelling and it keeps you turning pages. The writing is superb. The prose is clean and uncluttered and simple. I can’t wait to order the rest of the books and read them up.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Ruskin Bond - Love Among the Bookshelves

Love Among the BookshelvesLove Among the Bookshelves by Ruskin Bond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I heard about this book a while back when my friend wrote a review of it on her blog, Anu Reviews.

I am always game for a Ruskin Bond book, and when he writes about books, it is like a double treat. Hence I ordered it stat from Flipkart. They have a speedy delivery system and the book reached me before the week was over.

I slit the parcel at 1.30 noon, and started reading the book. It was such a captivating book, that I could not put it down. I was done with reading it before the afternoon faded.

Ruskin Bond delves into his past and tells us how he came to be addicted to books and how and when he read certain books. Then he introduces an author and presents an excerpt of on of his books.

He introduces P.G. Wodehouse, H.E. Bates, W. Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens and Richard Jefferies. Out of these stalwarts, I had never heard of Bates and Jefferies.

Jefferies writes on the spiritual aspect of nature, hence I can understand why Bond likes him so much. Bond is deeply in love with nature himself. But the excerpt was too spiritual for me. I am not too inclined towards that.

But Bates was a find. He writes, it seems from the excerpt on offer, about people who live close to nature and are hearty and in love with life. I will certainly seek out a book or two written by Mr. Bates.

There is no need to write about Wodehouse, Dickens or Maugham. Every book lover knows these authors well.

Bond chooses an excerpt from "The Pickwick Papers" by Dickens. It is a book that is always beside me, I can pick it up any time, and read any chapter. It is too brilliant to be forgotten.

All the works of Wodehouse are such a delight. "All is sunshine and happiness in a never-never land of amiable earls, eccentric aunts and supercilious butlers", writes Bond. We read Wodehouse because we want to escape into that sunshine world where problems can be solved by some little trick of Jeeves.

Bond chose an excerpt from "Cakes and Ale" by Somerset Maugham. I have read this book at some point in my life. Now I just have to refresh my memory by reading it again. The passage that Bond chooses should be a delight for people who wish to write books as well.

In addition to all these goodies, we get to read more reminiscences by Bond, written in way only he can write. He writing has a touch of gentle humor which is so much more refreshing than the witty language used by some authors.

When he speaks about his failing eyesight, and how he chooses to read only in good light, I feel sympathy for him. I feel the pain of a person who loves reading but cannot.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

N.E. Brown, S.L. Jenkins - Galveston: 1900: Indignities, Book One: The Arrival

Galveston: 1900: Indignities, Book One: The ArrivalGalveston: 1900: Indignities, Book One: The Arrival by N.E. Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading books is hobby that is good for the mind. Alas, it is not really good for the body. I tend to lie supine on a bed, or curled up in a chair, glued to a book, eyes darting along the sentences, hands turning pages. Over the time, the eyes feel the strain and I am constrained to wearing thicker glasses. The wee print that was a cakewalk when I was 15 or 20 now looks blurred. I replace books on library shelves with a sigh when I see that the print is too small for me to read.

A Kindle helps. I can enlarge the font and read comfortably. There is one more advantage to owning a Kindle that I just discovered. Buying a book is much simpler now. As an avid book lover, I have often chased books that I wanted to read and find that they were simply not available to me.

Yes, that happens quite often. At one time, I wanted to buy a book called 'Jane Austen Book Club'. I searched high and low in the bookshops close to me, I scoured the libraries around, all without luck. I managed to lay my hands on it, by ordering it in a bookstore. But I had to pay a high price for it, as it was shipped specially for me.

I read about Galveston: 1900: Indignities on a book site which carried an excerpt from it. I found it an intriguing read. My interest was piqued even more as I had visited Galveston on my recent trip to USA. The book was not available easily in paperback for me here in India.

However, a recent gift of Kindle by my daughter suddenly made reading this book possible. The kindle edition was delivered instantly to my reader. A lot of people like to deride the modern way of life, citing that the earlier days were simpler and nicer. Yes, in some ways the early days were nice, the life was slower. But surely technology has made our life richer now. This is one example. In early days I would have sighed and never managed to read this book. But now, I could.

The story is about Catherine Eastman who was born in Sandgate, England. She was brought to USA by her mother, Anne Eastman, when Catherine was 15 years old. A series of tragedies had wiped the rest of their family off. Anne Eastman wanted to make a fresh start in a new place. Her mother was a skilled seamstress and hoped to make her living by it. After a rough sea-voyage, the mother and daughter arrived in Galveston and took their bearings. Anne sought work as an assistant seamstress in The Grande Opera House. Unfortunately, she also meets David Brooke there.

David Brooke is a serial killer and born criminal. He spots the beautiful Anne Eastman and is instantly smitten by her. But the aloof widow does not encourage him. This makes him obsess all the more about her. This obsession proves fatal to Anne. It also alters the course of life of Catherine.

The book is a romance, no doubt. But being set in 1898, it is a historical fiction. It is also placed close to the devastating storm of 1900 that hit Galveston. The historical facts provide a fillip to the story. The narration is so effective, that you actually feel you are witnessing those events of far away times. This engrossing tale keeps you turning pages. I was able to read the entire book in the space of a day!

The story of Catherine Eastman is told in a series of novels. Four have been printed already, and I am on to the next one in the series, Galveston :1900: Indignities - The Aftermath.

The research for the book is done by N.E. Brown and is so well written by her daughter S.L. Jenkins. Do pick up this excellent romance from Amazon.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Anna Elliott - Georgiana Darcy's Diary

Georgiana Darcy's Diary: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice Continued (Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, #1)Georgiana Darcy's Diary: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice Continued by Anna Elliott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was just gifted a Kindle by my daughter. One of the first things I did was to see what I could get free off their stack. I was looking for Persuasion by Jane Austen, and this book was right there beside it.

The title sounded promising. I am not really fond of spin-offs of famous books. I had disliked "The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet" by Colleen McCullough. I did not really like "Scarlett" by Alexandra Ripley. Despite its nice sounding title, the book was likely to be a fluffy romance.

Why not read a fluffy romance first on a brand new Kindle? It has been a long time since I read an easy page turner. What clinched the deal was the prospect of meeting beloved old characters again.

The story starts a year after the momentous incidents at the end of "Pride and Prejudice", the wedding of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Elizabeth is happy as the new mistress of Pemberley. Georgiana gets along beautifully with her. But Lady de Bourgh will not rest until she sees her niece wedded to a proper gentleman before the year is out.

To counter the stress of having suitors flung at her, Georgiana starts keeping a diary. Thus her story is recounted to us - as a series of diary entries. Lady Catherine de Bourgh has prevailed upon Darcy to organize a house party and called several eligible bachelors who may court Georgiana.

Georgiana has plans of her own. She has her heart set upon Col. Edward Fitzwilliam. But will Col. Fitzwilliam, a veteran of wars with Napolean, be interested in an ingenue like Georgiana? Surely he regards her as a chit of a girl- a ward of his- that he must look out for.

Right at the start of the book the author Anne Elliott makes it clear that she has no illusions of being anywhere even close to the great Jane Austen. She has merely imagined what her characters did after the novel ended.

Hence, I read the novel in the same spirit. I could see right at the start that this was a light romance, a page turner.

Anna Elliott keeps the reader engrossed in the story. There is plenty happening here. Balls, dresses, gossip, romance. Anne de Bourgh is still a sickly woman doomed to be a spinster. But Georgiana steps in to befriend her and teach her to be more outgoing.

Caroline Bingley is also present at the house party and she is still the same haughty, overdressed woman. She is still bitter at having lost Darcy.

Modern authors tend to color history by attributing more modern characteristics in their characters. Hence, Georgiana becomes a bit of a feminist. She tries to be egalitarian. She even hears a friend admit he is gay without fainting. Please, dear Anna Elliott, we know Jane Austen was not politically correct. She was a creature of her own times and we love her for it. Do not try to change that.

All in all, a fun, quick and an entertaining read.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

C.S.Lewis - The Magician's Nephew

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #6)The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Digory Kirke has been sent to live in London. His mother is on her deathbed. His father is away fighting a war in India. Diggory lived in the times when Sherlock Holmes still lived in Baker's Street. His neighbour, Polly, befriends him. Diggory lives with his Aunt Letty and her brother, Andrew.

Uncle Andrew is up to no good. He is always holed up in his attic and is said to be strange. Aunt Letty forbids Digory from having anything to do with him. As Uncle Andrew does look mad, Digory is content to give him wide berth and spend his time playing with Polly.

One wet, cold day in June, the children are prevented from going outdoors. Polly has this idea of walking along the rafters in the roof and going down into an abandoned house in their neighbourhood. The kids want to explore the house. They miscalculate the number of rafters they have to cross and come down in Uncle Andrew's attic instead.

This is providential for Andrew Ketterly. He has been looking for a boy to try out some magic rings that he has devised. He is sure that the rings send people out of this world into another, he has sent a guinea pig away. But he wants someone to go and come back so he can hear about the travel. He is too cowardly to make the trip himself. Hence, he is very happy to suddenly see the children in his attic.

He tricks the children into using his magic rings. They do go out and discover other worlds. In their first trip, they discover the dead world of Charn, where everyone is in eternal sleep. Digory's curious nature gets better of him and he makes the dreadful mistake of awakening the White Witch of Charn, Queen Jadis. When the children try to flee the Witch, and return to London, they find that Jadis has hitched a ride on their ring, and has returned to London with them.

This is the prequel to the wonderful C.S. Lewis book, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, here we discover how the Wardrobe came about, and the Lamppost. And why Lucy was able open the wardrobe and go into Narnia.

I love the Narnia Chronicles. I read them when I was a pre-teen. At the time, the whole symbolism of Aslan as God escaped me. For me, it was just a great fantasy tale of Kings and wars and talking animals and the wonderful, pure land of Narnia. It was good to re-read this story full of bright colored magic rings, magic apples and horses that fly and funny talking animals.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Krishna Sobti - Surajmukhi Andhere Ke

Surajmukhi Andhere KeSurajmukhi Andhere Ke by Krishna Sobti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I re-read Mitro Marjani a few days ago and fell in love with it all over again. It is a classic and will live forever. This time round, I noticed what a taut story it was. I loved the way it was told. It was obvious that Krishna Sobti was a born storyteller.

I wanted to read some more of her works, and ordered Zindaginama and Surajmukhi Andhere ke from Home Shop 18, which has a good stock of Hindi books. I started on Surajmukhi Andhere Ke first, as was a slim book.

Ratti is a young woman who is damaged by an event in her past. Because of it, she finds it hard to allow love back into her life. After spending a lifetime of letting men come close to her and rejecting them, she finds herself getting old and lonely.

She spends some time in Shimla with her soul-sister Reema. She is charmed by the pretty picture of domesticity that Reema's family presents, with her devoted husband, Keshi and her little son, Kumu. It awakens memories and yearnings in Ratti's heart.

The slim book is divided into 3 chapters or parts, Pul (Bridges), Surangen (tunnels) and Akash (Sky). The three parts are reminiscent of a train journey from Shimla to Kalka. In the first part, Ratti stands on a bridge between her old way of life and new. In the second part, she relives her past. In the third, she makes an effort to come out from the shackles of her past.

Despite her scars, Ratti is a strong woman. She does not allow herself the luxury of domesticity just for its own sake. She has spent her life trampling on the feelings of men who have tried to get close to her, without falling prey to sentimentality.

I am still in love with her as a novelist. Her language is terse and sparse and she is not afraid of expressing the innermost feelings of her characters. This novel is not as awesome as Mitro Marjani, but it is very good.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Amrita Pritam - Raseedi Ticket

Raseedi TicketRaseedi Ticket by Amrita Pritam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Raseedi Ticket is a sort of an autobiography of Amrita Pritam. She keeps to the chronology of events more or less. Her story is laid out in a series of episodes that she feels were important in her life. So we hear about how her mother married her father, the genesis of her name, her mother's death, her disillusionment with
God at that moment, why she took to writing, when she first met Sahir etc.

Although it does not read like a cohesive story, we do get an idea of what her life was like. She speaks about her relationship with Sahir, her relationship with the Pakistani writer Sajjad Haider and of course, her dream companion, Imroz. She recounts episodes in her life featuring these men. She is completely honest about how she feels about them, and gives out no sleazy details, just as it should be.

She recounts an incident about Haider. One day at a party Haider was offered a plate of Imarti rather pointedly. His hostess was obviously trying to make a joke about his relationship with Amrita, playing on the similarity between 'Imarti' and 'Amrita'. When the hostess offered the plate of Imarti again, Haider said 'The one you are trying to refer to here, I love her and adore her.' That shut the hostess up.

Then she writes about the incident that gave birth of a lovely song. One evening, after her affair with Sahir was long over, she went with Imroz to see him. They sat till long in the evening, drinking whiskey. After they left, Sahir could not sleep and spent the night pouring whiskey into their empty glasses by turn and drinking. That night he wrote this beautiful nazm which was later used in the film "Dooj Ka Chand".

Mehfil se uth jaane walon
tum logon par kya ilzaam
Tum abaad gharon ke wasi
Main awara aur badnaam
mere saathi khali jaam

There are chapters devoted to her dreams and how she believes they are an omen and often a solution to the problems she faced at the time. Her spirituality was eclectic. She believed in Sikhism, sufis of various types, sadhus and sants who were rumoured to have special powers.

She is true to herself as a woman, and believes in telling the truth as she knows it. The few poems and nazms that she showcases in the book are breathtaking. She tells about how she got inspiration to write her famous poem "Ajj Akhan Waris Shah noon". She also talks about the acclaim the poem received all over. In Pakistan, where there is a special festival that takes place on the theme of Waris Shah  Her poem is recited and enacted at this festival.

Another poem of hers, "Mata Tripta Da Sapna", ran afoul of the Sikh clergy. They were mortified that anyone could write so about the mother of Guru Nanak. Amrita says that one winter night, she got a phone call from her son. She had run out of a warm razai to hear the phone. Exchanging a few words with her son made her feel warm all over. She remembered what it was like carrying this child in her womb. She was an ordinary woman bearing an ordinary child.  She tried to imagine what Mata Tripta felt like, carrying a divine baby like Guru Nanak.

She also writes a heartfelt ode to her constant companion Imroz. He gave her space and provided support to her always.

Amrita's prose is poetic and full of metaphors and imagery. I have read some books of hers in the past, but I am afraid I remember little of those. I really need to get a book of her poems and some novels.

It is rather a coincidence that I ordered a book called Women who run with the Wolves, and then read books by authors like Ismat Chugtai, Krishna Sobti and Amrita Pritam. These are women who ran with the wolves. They did not care for the slots that the society had created for women. Their lives and their literature were firmly on the side of women who walked on the wild side.

In their age and times they spoke up for all kinds of women. Most of all, they sympathised with the women who were shunned by the genteel people.

"Within each woman there lives a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. She is the Wild Woman, who represents the instinctual nature of women."

The quote is from the Estes' book, Women who run with the Wolves. In my mind, Chugtai, Pritam and Sobti (and other authors who are ranked right up there with them) were those kind of women. Maybe because of the support they got from their socialist ideology, or from the forum of like-minded people, or their natural instincts, these women broke the societal barriers with their writings.

These women deserve to be read over and over again, and no book lover should have to travel too far to find a book written by them.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sue Monk Kidd - The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of BeesThe Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lily Owens bears a heavy burden. She lost her mother when she was a four year old child. Worse, she was responsible for her mother’s death. Even worse, her father is a bitter abusive man who makes her life living hell.

Their maid, Rosaleen, is a surrogate mother to her and the only bright spot in Lily’s life. A sequence of events leads Lily and Rosaleen to run away from home. Lily had discovered a picture of black Mary in a box that belonged to her mother with the name of a place Tiburon written on the back.

Hungry for some information about her mother, Lily wants to follow this lead. In Tiburon a similar picture on the bottle of honey leads Lily to the house of August Boatwright, who runs a bee farm.

Right then Lily knows that the answers she is looking for are to be found here. She is taken in by August to help with the beekeeping in exchange for a stay.

The novel is set in the year 1964 when the times were tumultuous for people of color. It is in such times that Lily chooses to live with a family of black women.

Despite the number of problems that Lily faces, the novel does not become depressing. It always holds out hope. It also manages to read like a thriller - what will Lily do next? - the question keeps us turning pages. We are charmed by the story of a deeply humane person, August Boatwright, who is fiercely independent, affectionate and inclusive.

This is a novel with a heart that draws the reader in and inspires us to be humane and forgiving.

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Sunday, June 08, 2014

Krishna Sobti - Mitro Marjani

Mitro MarjaniMitro Marjani by Krishna Sobti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Samitravanti alias Mitro is married into a respectable family of traders. Her in-laws are gentle god fearing people. It is a full household of eight people. They are constantly in a spat with each other. Mitro is not the kind of a person to sit coyly behind her ghunghat, doing household chores.

Her wayward ways cause great grief to her in-laws. Her older sister-in-law tries to curb her high spirited behavior. Her husband often beats her up when she refuses to listen to him. He is shocked by her blatant sexuality and feels emasculated by it.

Despite her sharp tongue and constant flightiness, Mitro is an affectionate person and genuinely cares for her mother-in-law and her older sister-in-law. Her problem is her unresponsive husband, who refuses to gratify her deep need for affection and, well, sex.

This is A-Class literature. The story runs smooth and taut. Although the focus of the story is Mitro, it is also a sharp glimpse into a small joint family unit which threatens to fall apart. The language is superb. It is Punjabi as spoken by people, blended into Hindi and Urdu. Krishna Sobti gets every emotion, every reaction, every bit of dialogue just right.

There is a glorious chapter in here where vengeful sisters-in-law(bhabhis) taunt their sister-in-law (Nanad) who has left her husband's home on flimsy grounds. Their taunting is subtle and couched in solicitousness. It is family politics at its best.

Although Mitro Marjani is famous for its portrayal of female sexuality, I found it just as useful for its portrayal of a Punjabi family and a way of life that is no more now.

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Saturday, June 07, 2014

Ismat Chugtai - Masooma

MasoomaMasooma by Ismat Chughtai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The misfortunes of Masooma began when her father made off to an undisclosed location (Pakistan?) with all the money and property of the family, and three older sons. Her father was supposed to send for the rest of the family once he settled down. But this never happened. Masooma's mother, along with 3 girls and a baby boy was left to fend for herself.

Women of high birth are cloistered and completely dependent on their men. They are not expected to step out into the world and fend for themselves. Begam Sahiba, Masooma's mother, was such a woman. Men had lined up to marry her when was of age. Her parents had picked among the grooms available. They wanted her to be married to a professional man who was khandani to boot. She lived like a queen all her life. Till one fine day when her husband disappeared.

She sold whatever she could to make ends meet. When all failed, she came to Bombay(as it was known then) and becomes a film producer's mistress. The film producer, Ehsaan, was more of a hustler, ran out of money. His eye fell on the beautiful teenage daughter of the Begam, Masooma.

Masooma, who was slated for a comfortable life, whose name was selected out of Quran Sharif, who was the much feted daughter after 3 sons, suddenly found her life take a nasty turn. She was passed on from one man to another and took on the exotic name of Nilofer for this alternate life that she had.

In the early chapters, Masooma remains a shadowy figure. She is seen as an emotionally high strung girl who beats up Ahmed, the first man chosen for her. At this stage in her life, it is her mother and Ehsaan who control her. Later, she learns the importance of her lovers, the money and gifts they bestow upon her.

Despite being perceived as a woman who sucks the menfolk dry of their money, we see that it is Masooma/Nilofer who is being ruthlessly used by men to further their greed and satisfy their lust. She holds no importance to them as a person. She is the convenient receptacle of their ill-repute. Being men, her lovers come out smelling of roses and prosper, while she is seen as a dirty woman.

Ismat Chugtai has a formidable reputation in literary circles. To write a novel like this in the early part of the past century was indeed daring. Her works did not pop up in my school syllabus like the stories of Munshi Premchand, Mohan Rakesh, Upendranath Ashq etc. It is only in reading extra-curricular literature that I got to know of her.

The picture that Ismat Chugtai paints is not pretty. Her socialist sensibilities make her depict the world of the Capitalists who use dirty tricks to evade taxes, ruin the lives of the proletariat to further their businesses. They even use charity work as a mask to further their ends. These are people Masooma has to depend upon to keep her body and soul together.

I do not think this book is the best work of Ismat Chugtai. It has a hurried feel to it. And often Masooma (poor girl) seems just a vehicle for the author to vent her ire against Capitalists. Like I said earlier, Masooma seems a shadowy figure at the start. She comes into her own towards the end, but even so, her personality is not really rounded. All other characters in the novel fade into the background or are brought to the forefront as per the need of the moment. The presence of the author is very evident in the book.

But there is no denying the power of Ismat Chugtai. It is her unforgiving depiction of the underbelly of the society that is very valuable.

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Chetan Bhagat - 2 States

2 States: The Story of My Marriage2 States: The Story of My Marriage by Chetan Bhagat
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not a huge fan of Chetan Bhagat. If I can help it, I do not read his books. I picked this one up as I had already seen the movie. This is odd in itself as I did not particularly like the movie.

Now, after having read the book, I lay the blame for the slightly lackluster movie at the door of the director. He underplayed the humor in the book, I see now. I also blame the dull looking Arjun Kapoor, he does not bring out the passion the hero feels for his girl.

The book, as most people know already,(as Chetan Bhagat is one of the most read authors of these times)is about a North-Indian Krish meeting a South-Indian Ananya at IIMA and falling headlong in love with. They find to their consternation that their parents do not see things their way. They are forced to make a serious effort to make their parents agree to their point of view.

Also thrown into the plot is a trouble-maker father that Krish has. On top of everything else, Krish has to sort out the issues he faces with his father.

Despite all these problems floating around, the book is not depressing or heavy. It is a light read and quite funny in places.

The language is passable. We have to admit that despite the widespread usage of English in our country, we are not experts at it.

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Sunday, May 04, 2014

Sarra Manning - Pretty Things

Pretty ThingsPretty Things by Sarra Manning
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I must confess I do not remember how I came by this book. Did I buy this book off a second hand book stall? Did I order it off some online book shop? Was I gifted this book? My memory being what it is, I should go back to writing the date and venue of purchase on the fly leaf. It is a good habit that I have lost in recent times.

This novel is touted as a Splashproof beach read and has a 100% waterproof cover. By rights it should be something you read and feel faintly dissatisfied with. Or you should feel like you just wound up wasting a precious day or two of your life. But that does not happen.

Despite its ditzy appearance, the book gets to the core of the matter and keeps you chuckling and turning the pages with pleasure.

Brie, Charlie, Walker and Daisy are four 17 year old London kids. Charlie does not want to spend his summer watching inane television shows with his best pal Brie. So he joins a drama club for the summer and persuades Brie to go along. Walker is genuinely interested in movies as a career and feels the drama club will help him. Daisy is opting for this as she wants something good on her college application.

They get to train with Lavinia, who was big on the Stage at one time.  She chooses The Taming of the Shrew to play and our foursome land the four lead parts.  They start hanging out together and a chain of events is set in motion that changes (somewhat) their attitude towards life.

Brie has self-image issues. Charlie is gay but likes only straight people. Walker is nicknamed Shagger and Wanker but has fallen hard for Daisy. Which is no use as Daisy is the super-bitch Lesbian.

Brie, Charlie, Walker and Daisy get a chapter each by turns to describe the progress of the summer through their own eyes. As we can see, all these characters have a different voice and a different way of looking at things.

Despite the story being a teen-lit, it is not all fluff. The problems and the issues they face are real. The author maintains a light tone which is appropriate for a beach read and also manages to slip in enough seriousness to keep you engrossed. The language is very witty and she is really best at describing things comically.

If you are in the mood for a light read which is not aimed at airheads, this is a perfect book for you.

I re-read the book especially to be able to write about it.

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

Alexander McCall Smith - La's Orchestra Saves the World

La's Orchestra Saves the WorldLa's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I discovered Alexander McCall Smith via his Sunday Philosophy Club series, also known as Isabel Dalhousie series. He is better known as the author of the No. 1 Detective Agency series.

He seems to like writing series of novels on a set of characters and places. He also wrote (or is still writing) the 44 Scotland Street series.

I love his series. It is nice to settle into a familiar world of characters and curious stories that surround them. But I am afraid they are a strain on my pocket.

You see, Alexander McCall Smith is not found widely in the libraries that I visit. I fall so deeply in love with his stories, that I wind up buying the books, which puts a strain on my pocket.

I have just finished buying up the entire series of Isabel Dalhousie. Now it looks like I will have to start buying up the 44 Scotland Street series as well. They are so good, I just HAVE to read them.

In the meantime, I found La's Orchestra Saves the World in my Library.

La, short for Lavender, was brought up on the hills of Norfolk. After completing her school, she moved to London to study at Cambridge. This was in 1930. She wanted to do something with her life. But she found herself being courted assiduously by Richard Stone. She married him and found herself settling into a comfortable domesticity.

After a few years her husband leaves her. She is heartbroken and moves to Suffolk to start her life over. By now, the war is upon them and she finds she is better off in Suffolk. She tries to help with the war effort as she can. In the process she meets Feliks, a Polish Air Force personnel who has relocated to England.

She falls in love with Felix but her love is unrequited. Yet they enjoy a friendship with each other. A friend suggests that she start an orchestra as a lot of people are keen on it. The orchestra becomes a part of her way of coming to terms with a lonely life.

This is an unusual novel from Alexander McCall Smith, whose characters are usually laid back, artistic and easy going. This novel is very concerned with the times it is set in. The war is very real here. It depicts how people try to keep going on with their lives despite the huge upheavals that are taking place in their world.

La reminded me of Isabel Dalhousie in some ways. They were both well-to-do women, who don't have to depend on anyone financially. They both like speaking their mind and often find their foot where their mouth should be, even if their intentions were good. But Isabel is a very well sorted woman as far as her personal life is concerned, and poor La is very vulnerable.

Alexander McCall Smith is always very rewarding to read.

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Bill O' Reilly, Martin Dugard - Killing Kennedy

Killing KennedyKilling Kennedy by Martin Dugard Bill O'Reilly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is no disputing the fact that John F. Kennedy was the most charismatic President the USA has seen. He came at the right time, when the 'social media' was Television, Newspapers and Magazines. The slower media was amenable to the good looking couple that found themselves in the White House.

We were yet decades and decades away from the more ruthless 'Right Now' social media of the 2010s.

This is not to say that Kennedy was unworthy of the adulation. He was hardworking and he knew what moves he had to make.

Reading a book about the Kennedy assassination, where the audience KNOWS what is about to happen could be unexciting. Yet Martin Dugard and Bill O'Reilly bring a thriller like feel to their book. It is well padded by the political happenings that lead to the assassination.

The authors avoid the conspiracy theories and keep to the facts as known to the world. As far as known, Lee Harvey Oswald was alone responsible for the killing. This is what the authors wisely stick to. They try and justify all the moves that others pointed to as fishy. For instance, Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey, and Jackie Kennedy crawling on the back of the car towards her Security Service officer.

The book is interesting to read, especially for someone like me, who was not in the know of the complete story of Kennedy in the White House. However, the authors again stick to the story of JFK as President and there is little mention of his entire family. Only the brothers who were with him in the Government are mentioned. There is no mention of his mother Rose, who was supposed to be bossy.

A wise move as the topic of the book is Killing Kennedy and that is what the authors relate.

The book is great for a non-stop read, as it is unputdownable.

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Friday, April 25, 2014

John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and MenOf Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Steinbeck's name appears on lists of best books ever so often. Not having read him ever, I picked up a slim volume with some misgivings. Some of the classical, renowned authors are not easy to read.

"Of Mice and Men" was a slim book of 186 pages, in bold typeface and double space. "This should be easy to get through", I thought. It was.

At the start of the book George and Lennie are on their way to a farm that is some way off. They rest by the riverbank and eat. George wants to spend the night in the open as he finds it restful.

I could tell right away that George was the smart on and Lennie was thick. He needed a lot of coaching by George to not give away that he was a simpleton. George wants to make some money and move on. He wants to own a bit of a land somewhere. Lennie likes this dream of his and wants to able to pet rabbits on that farm.

Lennie is simple, but he is also very strong. He does not know his own strength and sometime ends up maiming the things he pets. George knows that he has to keep an eye on Lennie to keep him safe from harm, keep him from harming things.

This is a brilliant book. The story is narrated mostly in dialogues between people. The language is that of ranch hands, rough and basic. Despite the language being unrefined, the emotions of the protagonists are very well conveyed. The characters are quickly sketched and filled out in bold strokes that only a master artist has.

The story is short, but powerful. It is almost play-like. Despite its brevity, it has layers. It is about poor people who are barely a step above animals. It is about disadvantaged people who are not fit to mix with good folk. It is about dreams. It is about loneliness that comes from being a drifter.

It is a book that is going be in my mind forever.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

John Grisham - Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row (Jake Brigance, #2)Sycamore Row by John Grisham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We are back in Clanton, Mississippi. It is a lovely little town. And it has some characters that we like. Harry Rex, Willie Traynor, Lucien Wilbanks, Judge Attlee are all here.

Jake Brigance gets a handwritten will and a covering letter by mail one Monday. It is by Seth Hubbard who committed suicide by hanging himself from a sycamore tree on his property. Seth Hubbard was a divorced man, alone, and battling cancer. He found it hard to face his illness and took his life.

Jake can see immediately that the will is going to cause a major stir in Clanton, and will be contested hotly. Seth left all his fortune to his black housekeeper Lettie Lang and cut his two children out completely.

There is an uproar on many fronts. Lettie Lang's husband, who is a drunkard, causes trouble by hiring some hotshot lawyers who are up to no good. Hubbard's children also hire lawyers to contest the handwritten will as well. Jake Brigance is supported covertly by Harry Rex and Lucien Wilbanks. With their invaluable help, he sets about trying to win the case for the Estate of Seth Hubbard.

The crux of the story lies in reason Seth had for leaving the fortune to Lettie Lang. Although that is not seen as central to the case. What is central to the case is whether Seth was in right mind when he made the will. But as the case progresses and the sleuths on the side of Seth's children uncover some facts, the reason for the strange bequeath becomes a moot point.

When we do find out the reason Seth had for giving the money to Lettie, we feel things could have been simplified by just stating the reason in the will. It was a horrific story, but it was in the past and not something that needed to be hidden. It is at the fag end of the book, that we feel the story gets weak.

For the major part of the novel, the story is very interesting and a real page-turner. At the end, with a lot of heavy duty legal descriptions, the lay reader is bound to feel bored.

I liked the Last Juror much much more.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Kanika Gahlaut - Among the Chatterati

Among The ChatteratiAmong The Chatterati by Kanika Gahlaut
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The first few chapters of the book were very readable and very interesting. By a weird chance, every book that I picked off the shelf from my library, for the past month or two, were very depressing. Which is why I picked this one. I was hoping it would be peppered with some light, amusing writing.

I was not disappointed there. It was amusing. A newbie journalist, Aby, gets thrown into the world of Page 3 reporting. We get a funny account of how she tries to handle this new assignment.

Kanika blends some fictional names with real life ones to add pep to the story. The Jessica Lal murder pops up the first thing in the book, thinly masked as the murder of an ex-model at a high profile party.

Aby also gets to date the delectable Arjun, scion of a royal family and also son of a cabinet minister.

About the time the Arjun episode starts, the story falls down a well. Well, there is no story thereafter, so to speak. Even the Arjun love affair is a bland report of some unexciting conversation, description of food eaten and restaurants visited.

The author launches into her categorization of the kind of people she finds in society gatherings, and no dope on what they do.

After a few descriptions of parties attended, the book whimpers to a stop with a tantalizing hint that Aby's love life is in a full swing.

What a sad end to such a promising start.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Nevil Shute - On the Beach

On the BeachOn the Beach by Nevil Shute
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read two Nevil Shute books years ago, when I was in school. That was during the '70s.

No Highway was about a plane crash and a scientist who has a theory about it. An air hostess and an actress fall prey to his charm and try to gain his affection.

The Far Country was about an English girl who goes to Australia for a long visit. She meets a Czech doctor there and they begin seeing each other. In typical Shute fashion, they form a deep bond without the usual romantic fuss.

I found his books good to read. They had a leisurely pace, good descriptions, good story and good characters.

After many years, I picked up a Nevil Shute book once more. I was not disappointed. His storytelling is as good as ever.

It is a post-apocalyptic world. Cobalt bombs have been dropped all over America, Europe and Asia. Nothing survives there. By virtue of distance, there is life still in Australia. But the radioactive clouds are on their way. No one will survive this. All they have is a bit more time.

The novel portrays how people behave in a time like this. On the surface everything is normal. People love, live, marry, raise children, work on their gardens, do things that people do in normal times.

Very subtly, we are made to realize what the necessities of life are. There is no petrol, so people go around in bullock or horse carts, or take the train and a tram. They listen to radio and look at films that are already in circulation. They can do without luxuries, but they need a chance to live a healthy life. They also realize how necessary it is do all that they dreamed of now, while they still have time.

Moira Davidson is a young woman who is on a drinking spree, trying to live it up for whatever time that is left her. She meets Dwight Towers, an American Naval Commander who is stationed in Melbourne because its the only place left. Love springs up between them, or rather, as Moira says candidly at one point, "Oh, he is not courting me, I am courting him." Dwight has lost his beloved wife and children in USA and he hangs on to a twisted belief that they are still well and good and decides to remain committed to them.

It is a fascinating novel. Only a bit depressing as we know it is not going to end well. I reduced one star because of the depressing factor. I think I will go back and add a star. It deserves to be read by people to realize how futile war is.

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Joan Didion - Play it as it Lays

Play It as It LaysPlay It as It Lays by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maria is beautiful, thin, rich. Her parents dealt her with aces. She had her mother's beauty, her father's optimism. What she lacked was the game.

Maria's world is shattered when her daughter is put into an institution for being mentally retarded. This is never spelled out, it is merely alluded to. Her family life is not as she wishes it to be. They are not a cosy couple, living an everyday life with their child. Her husband is away mostly, making films, while she is the bored, purposeless Beverly Hills faded trophy wife.

She spirals downwards, all the people in her life, everything that happens to her, just pushes her deeper into mire.

What makes the book stand out is the masterly writing of Joan Didion. Her pithy prose leads you into the mind of Maria, what makes her tick, or rather, what makes her fall apart. Maria recounts her story, or parts of it, from an Institution. Her account is disjointed, moving back and forth. Her disjointed thoughts, lacking any clear flow, betray the state of her mind. It is as if the writer is not there at all, and the novel is flowing straight out of the head of Maria Lang.

Beautiful fading Maria remains strangely untouched by the decadence that surrounds her, even though she is a part of it. Her long highway drives to forget her troubles are going to stay in my mind for a long time.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

John Grisham - The Last Juror

The Last JurorThe Last Juror by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first John Grisham book that I ever read. A friend recommended Sycamore Row and sent me an e-book to read. E-books are not my favorite format. I prefer paper. But I liked what I managed to read of the book. Here was an author who knew how to keep the reader's interest.

My interest was piqued and I tried to look for the book in my library. I failed to find it, but I wanted to read something else by John Grisham and picked up The Last Juror.

As it turned out, the plot of the novel was indeed gripping. Willie Traynor, a young college graduate, armed with a degree in Journalism, arrives in the fictional town of Clanton, Ford County, Mississippi, in early 1970s, to work for a newspaper that barely prints a thousand copies. Soon after his arrival, the owner is served a bankruptcy notice.

The paper is up for sale, dirt cheap. Traynor has a rich grandmother who is prevailed upon to invest in the paper, and Willie finds himself, at 23 years of age, owner of a small-town newspaper. He works himself to the bone trying to turn a losing proposition to a winning one. He is unexpectedly handed a publicity bonanza when a young woman is found murdered in the outskirts of the town. Her murderer, Danny, nabbed almost immediately, is scion of the infamous Padgitt clan.

A trial starts and the whole town suddenly sees the need to buy Willie's newspaper. He fills the paper with not always impartial, often opinionated news, but he makes it a selling proposition once more. In the process, he falls in love with Clanton and its people: he fights hard to maintain the integrity of the town.

This novel is practically un-put-down-able. I neglected my housework in a bid to turn the next page and find out what happened next.

Like the hero of the novel, John Grisham also lived in deep south in a small town. He was a trial lawyer though, not a newspaperman. After working for years as a successful lawyer, John Grisham took to writing novels. His career graph (professional to author) reminded me of another favorite author of mine, A.J. Cronin, who became a successful author after years of being a medical practitioner.

It is not surprising that several of John Grisham's books have been turned into Hollywood films. His plots are imaginative and rich, his characters are dramatic and memorable and his story-telling is powerful and evocative.

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Agatha Christie - Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read a fair number of Agatha Christie mysteries during my mid-teens.  Reading these books was an important rite of passage, to show that I had graduated from the kiddie Enid Blyton books and was ready for more adult fare.

I did not read Murder on the Orient Express, though I did see the 1974 version of the movie long back starring all those stalwart actors.  Upon being prompted by a friend, I picked up this book up from the Library for a read.

Dame Christie's prose is a delight. Her sentences are simple and elegant.  She keeps to her subject without seeming to harp on anything. The way she handles a mystery is ingenious. She first presents a problem as practically unsolvable.  A man has been murdered on a train.  The co-passengers are all genteel folk who would not harm a fly.  The violent crime could have been committed by an outsider, who entered the train, killed the man, shed his clothes and left.  But the problem is, the train is halted due to a snowdrift and no one could have exited the train.

After the unsolvable crime has been presented, we are slowly acquainted with evidence which is usually very muddling.  It is left to M. Hercule Poirot to smooth out the knots and present the picture.

It is without doubt, a magnificent book which should be read by every book lover.  I am going to lay my hands on as many Agatha Christie books I can find and read her extensively once again.  She is totally worth my time.

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Monday, March 03, 2014

Kazuo Ishiguro - When we were Orphans

When We Were OrphansWhen We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book started beautifully. Christopher Banks is planning to launch his career as a private detective. He has been preparing for this moment all his life. Ever since he was sent to London from Shanghai, after his parents disappeared within weeks from each other.

He becomes a renowned detective. He finds himself compelled to go back to China to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his parents.

It is here that the novel unravels. Christopher goes on a wild goose chase, following flimsy leads. The denouement was supposed to be horrific, but it just seemed rather far-fetched.

I had loved Kazuo Ishiguro's other book "Never Let me Go". This one is a not a patch on it.

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