Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Alex Rutherford - The Tainted Throne

+Headline Books Publishing
+Amazon India

This book is fourth in the Empire of the Moghuls series. It covers the reign of Jahangir and the power tussle with his son, Khurram.

The book opens with an account of how Jahangir quashed a rebellion of his eldest son, Khusrau.  He meted out harsh punishments to the rebels and imprisoned his own son.  He also sent an assassin to kill the husband of Mehrunissa in Bengal.

Most of the first few chapters deal with how he brings Mehrunissa to the Agra court and bides time to court her.  He marries after a certain period of time is over and falls completely under her spell.  His second son, Parvez is addicted to easy life and wine.  His third son, Khurram was beloved of his grandfather, Akbar.  He is a worthy contender for the throne and Jahangir comes to love him best.  The youngest son, Shahriyar does not seem smart enough for royal duties.

The Moghuls are extremely romantic, handsome and capable.  But they are also bloodthirsty and do not hesitate to maim and kill their close associates and brethren to suit their own ends.  The phrase to describe this is "Takht ya takhta" meaning "Throne or coffin".

The dire punishments meted out for rebellion does not seem to deter the Moghul Princes for making the attempt to seize the throne again and again.  The pattern is repeated with every Moghul Emperor.

The Moghuls ruled in India for more than 300 years, commencing from Babur and ending with Bahadur Shah Zafar.  This series about the Empire of the Moghuls starts with Babur.

Raiders from the North:
This is brilliant book about Babur's life in Ferghana as the crown prince.  He is routed out of his kingdom and forced to live the life of a nomad, a pillager. When all his attempts at reclaiming his Kingdom fail, he makes towards Hindustan.  He finds himself in his element here and puts down his roots after defeating Ibrahim Lodhi. Soon his empire extends from Kabul to Bengal.

This is, by far, the best book in the series. It is rich in detail about the life of Moghuls that we do not know much about, before they reached the shores of India.



Brothers at Arms:
The story continues with the tale of Moguls. After Babur, Humayun is the Emperor of Hindustan.  The story of the Moghuls nearly terminated with Humayun when he lost a major portion of his kingdom to Sher Shah Suri.

Humayun had to fight against the treachery of his brothers and Sher Shah's Army to regain his lost empire.  He did win it back but did not live long to enjoy its fruits.

His beloved wife, Hamida rallied to the cause of Moghuls by safeguarding the interests of her teenage son and successor, Jalaluddin.

 Ruler of the World:

This book seemed the weakest of the four that I have read, to my surprise.  Maybe I was expecting a lot more from the book about the greatest of all Moghuls, Akbar the Great.

The book concentrates on the relationship of Akbar with his older son Salim.  It is a shaky relationship, Salim is forever starved of any affection from his great father.  It is his sons, Khurram in particular who are beloved of their illustrious grandfather.




The four books I have read so far are rich in detail.  At the end of each book the authors make a list of their sources.  They also list the actual sequence of events according to history and let us know whatever characters and events that were invented by them for the sake of embellishing the fiction.  This, I feel, is the best part of their books.  We get to know the facts as well as the fiction of the books.

I have ordered and eagerly await the arrival of the final two books in the series,  The Serpents Tooth and Traitors in the Shadow.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

E B White - Charlotte's Web

 +HarperCollins Publishers
+HarperCollins Children's

Decades ago, an American girl I was pen-friends with, sent me some books as a gift.  I still remember the three books I received.  There was Sydney Taylor's All of a kind family, a story about a Jewish family of young girls.   Then there was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.  Third book was Charlotte's Web by E.B.White.

Readers of young adult fiction will agree that these three are classics that every young adult MUST read.

On a whim, I searched for the e-book version of Charlotte's Web, and was lucky to find it right away.  Being an e-book version, I missed out on the lovely illustrations that my original book had.  Even so, the charming story cast its spell on me all over again.

Fern Arable wakes up one morning to find her father going off with an axe to kill the runt of his pig's litter. Fern is alarmed and runs after her father to save the weak little piglet.  She wows to care for him, and she does.  She feeds him warm milk from a bottle and carries him around.

Wilbur, the runt, survives and thrives.  Mr. Arable makes Fern sell the pig to his neighbors, the Zuckermans as he finds it hard to provide for the pig.  Fern takes to visiting Wilbur in his new home every day and gets sucked into the wonderful world of animals.

Mr. Homer Zuckerman has sheep, geese, cows and horses on his farms.  To her delight, Fern finds herself able to understand what the animals say to each other.  Wilbur makes friends with a spider called Charlotte. They are all happy together and Wilbur finds himself growing big and fat.

Just then, the sheep tells him that a Spring Pig (born in the Spring), like Wilbur, will be food for the Christmas table.  Wilbur is devastated at the news, he loves his life and does not want it to end.

Charlotte promises to help Wilbur.  She must do something to make humans feel that Wilbur is special and not any run-of-the-mill Pig who can be butchered for a Christmas feast.

The story is charming and beautifully written.  It deserves its status as a children's classic.  The reader will be sucked into the wonderful world of animals and how they all pull together to save Wilbur from a certain death.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Betty Smith - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

@Harper and Brothers
+HarperCollins Publishers

Francie Nolan is the daughter of Katie and Johnny Nolan living in Brooklyn.  Her mother is a janitor and father works as a waiter/singer whenever he finds work.  It is early 1900s and times are very hard for the Nolans.  They rarely get to eat enough.  Francie and her younger brother, Neely do some scavenging work to earn a few pennies.

Little Francie has two things that help her escape from the poverty around her.  Her habit of reading books and day-dreaming.  She observes people around her with a sharp eye.  Despite the hard times, her world is rosy colored.

Katie insists on her children getting good grades in school.  She is keen on her children doing well in life.  Her mother imprinted in her mind some rules for that - Education, saving a penny or two, reading aloud daily from The Bible and Shakespeare.

Francie's father, Johnny, is a drunkard but she loves him.  He sings songs, is fun to be with, and knows just what to say to lift Francie's spirits.  He even helps enroll her in a good school by fudging their address.

The book is all about Francie's life from years Eleven to Seventeen.  It chronicles the events and various friends and family.  It is a valuable glimpse into the life of a young girl of early twentieth century.  The cultural mores were different then, as was the lifestyle.

The book is based on the life of the author, Betty Smith. It may not be a faithful record of her life, but is close enough, I suppose. There is an array of colorful characters to liven up the story.  Francie's father is a singing, sweet talking drunkard.  Her aunt, Sissy Rommely has taken a number of husbands without bothering to divorce the previous one.

Betty Smith's other book, Joy in the morning chronicles her life with her first husband whom she married when she was Eighteen.  It is a sequel to this book and it is easy to see that Ben Blake of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is the Carl Brown of 'Joy in the Morning".

Betty's writing is light as candyfloss and you are carried along the narrative easily.  Her characters are all standout and not to be forgotten easily.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Han Suyin - Birdless Summer

@Jonathan Cape Books
+Putnams
@Blossoms Book Store, Bangalore

I have been looking for books by Han Suyin for quite a while now.  They are out of print mostly and not available on kindle.  My only hope is to come across her books in second hand book store; I depend on serendipity there.

I found some books by Han Suyin at Blossoms, the famous second hand book shop in Bangalore.  It was a treat for me.

The name Birdless Summer invokes a cheerless feeling.  It is a chronicle of a particularly bleak period in the life of the author.  She was pursuing her medical studies in Belgium in 1938 when she ran into an old neighbor from her childhood days, Pao. She was struck by nostalgia and marries him.  Not just that, she abandoned her studies and returns to war torn China to be by her husband's side.

Pao had just completed his military studies in London and is an officer in the Army.  He was full of idealistic zeal and ready to fight for his country alongside his beloved leader Chiang Kaishek.  Suyin too is full of patriotism for China and wanted to do something to serve her country.

They returned to find China in shambles.  The Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kaishek was losing badly to the invaders, the Japanese.  As is always the case, the poor people were the worst off.  They were living in sub-human conditions and things were getting worse and worse.  The people in power did all they could to live comfortably and avoid the ravages of war.

Suyin was appalled. China was sinking in dirt.  It was not just the state of China that was horrific.  She found Pao extremely conservative and narrow minded.  He abused and beat her routinely.  Suyin tried to justify Pao's behavior and tried to do as he wished of her.  But her spirits refused to be quelled.

She worked in a maternity clinic for a while, tried to do something useful.  Later, when Pao was sent to London as an attache, she went along and resumed her medical studies.  She was on a path to self-fulfillment. But her marriage was in shambles, just like China.

She found herself sympathizing with the Communist ideology and Mao TseTung.

The book chronicles the tumultuous decade in the history of China, 1938 to 1948 with vividness.  The horror of war is very realistically painted.  The fear, the maiming, the extreme poverty of those times, people scrounging for food, battling with diseases are well etched.

Han Suyin also writes about her bestselling first book, Destination Chungking.  She describes the circumstances in which she wrote that book.  It wasn't the correct chronicle of the time.  Birdless Summer is an honest re-write of that book, according to her.  It is hard to figure out the truth, as autobiographies are rarely brutally honest.  Anyhow, the political happenings cannot be denied.

Despite the book being a cut and dried account of war-torn China, it is not boring.  It is a gripping account of the time. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Anne Tyler - Digging to America

@Knopf publishers
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store
+Kindle Ebooks Daily

One fine day the airport at Baltimore witnesses the arrival of two little baby girls from Korea.  There are two families present to welcome the girls into their family. Brad and Bitsy Donaldson are there in full force with their families and are busy taking videos of the event.

Sami and Ziba Yazdan are also there with Sami's mother Maryam.  They get talking with the Brad and Bitsy at the airport and become friends.  Soon they are swept into Bitsy's social circle.  They are having dinners together, comparing notes on bringing up the children and becoming close.

This intimacy brings joys to both the parties and also the attendant problems which are mainly to do with the different cultural backgrounds that the families belong to.  Ziba feels intimidated by Bitsy's directives on how children should be raised.  Bitsy wants Jin Ho, her baby, to stick to her Korean roots.  Sami's mother, Maryam, notices all the goings on between the family.  She is often invited to the parties and reciprocates the gesture by inviting them all to her place for Iranian dinners.

Things get complicated when Bitsy's father, Dave becomes interested in Maryam.  Maryam has been living alone for a long time and does not like the way her life is rearranged because of Dave's intrusions.  She likes having him around but does not want to change for him.

This seemingly simple story about the lives of two families reveals many layers.  Maryam had come over to America from Iran after marrying Sami's father.  This story is also about how she assimilated into American life and also managed to hang on to her identity as an Iranian woman, mainly through food and language. She visits her cousins from time to time and observes how they are getting along with their life.

Ziba and Sami, being second generation US citizens, are more anxious to live like Americans.  They call their adopted daughter Susan and don't want to foist any other identity on their child.

This novel brings out the essence of America; how it accommodates to include various immigrants.  It celebrates differences and celebrates the richness that differences bring into our lives.

The writing style is quintessential Tyler.  A quiet unassuming prose, seemingly busy in just describing everyday events to the readers until they are drawn into the story and living the lives of the characters.



Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Shirley Jackson - We have always lived in the castle

+Penguin Books USA
+Amazon.in
+Kindle Ebooks Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2015

Larry McMurtry - The Desert Rose

+Simon & Schuster Books
+Amazon.in
+Kindle Store, Kindle Books & More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Madhulika Liddle - Crimson City

+Hachette India
+Kindle Store, Kindle Books & More
+Amazon.in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 02, 2015

Erica Jong - Sappho's Leap

+Amazon India
+Kindle Store
+WWNorton

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


stars around the beautiful moon

hide back  their luminous form
whenever all full she shines

on the earth

silvery

-translated by Anne Carson in If not, winter

SAPPHO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Kiran Manral - All Aboard

+Amazon India
+Kindle Store
+Penguin India

Kiran Manral serves up this frothy holiday romance with panache.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Zeenat Mahal - Haveli

+Kindle Ebooks Daily
+Amazon.in
+indireads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect.









 

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Rachel Renee Russell - Dork Diaries: Drama Queen

+Kindle Store, Kindle Books & More
+Amazon.in
Published by Alladin Paperbacks

Nikki Maxwell is a 14-year-old girl not too sure about herself.  She goes to Westchester Country Day, a private school that her Dad provides bug-exterminating services to.  He has arranged for a scholarship for her.  

She is surrounded by children from a privileged background.  Because of this, she feels like an outcast. The most popular girl in school, Mckenzie Hollister usually singles her out for ridicule. 

She has two best friends, Chloe and Zoey.  In their little world together they are happy.  Nikki has a crush on Brandon Roberts.  He is a certified school hottie.  Even Mckenzie has a crush on him. 

Nikki loves writing about her day to day activities in this diary. The references to her teachers and friends are not always complimentary.  Which is why she is devastated when she loses her diary.  Uh Oh! The password to the online advice column that she writes is also in the diary.

This is a calamity of the first order. Will Nikki survive it?  Will she ever get close to Brandon? Will she ever be rid of Mckenzie?


The book is peppered with sweet illustrations and texts.  It is a perfect read if you want to get into the mind of an early teen.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Daphne Du Maurier - Frenchman's Creek

+Kindle Store, Kindle Books & More
+Amazon India
@Virago Classic Books


When the east wind blow up Helford river the shining waters become troubled an disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores.

Thus starts the fourth novel by Daphne du Maurier.  The first chapter is a breathtaking description of Navron and the little creek in Navron, Cornwall.  A modern day sailor on a boat in the creek is suddenly disturbed by the visions of a beautiful lady and her French lover.

From here we zoom back into the Restoration period, perhaps 1650.  Dona St. Columb is a celebrated beauty in the court.  She is married to Harry St. Columb and has two little children.  She is an impetuous woman and given to hanging out with her husband and his friends in places of low repute.

Rockingham, her husband's friend,  fancies he can conquer Dona after they share a kiss.  Dona has no intention of following up on the kiss.  After an adventure, she finds herself sickened of the empty London society and on an impulse, takes her children and drives down to Navron, her husband's seat in the country.

Navron is a neglected place.  There is only one servant present, William.  He seems intractable and outspoken.  Dona, sickened of the fawning London society, finds him a refreshing change. Soon, the country house is in order and Dona enjoys the idyllic, lazy life there.  She takes walks around in the garden and plays with the children.

Her peace is soon shattered by the arrival of Lord Godolphin.  He warns her of a French pirate who has been disturbing the peace around here.  He robs the people on this side of the coast and quickly sneaks off to Brittany.  He wants Harry to come down from London and help capture this slippery pirate.

Dona discovers that the pirate has been using her house and anchoring his ship in the little creek close to her property.  She is captured by the pirates as she comes upon their ship in her creek.  She is captivated by Jean Aubrey and joins forces with him.

This is a beautiful novel.  The descriptions of flora and fauna around Navron are detailed exquisitely at every chance the author gets.

Du Maurier is known to set her novels around some wonderful houses. It was Manderley in "Rebecca" and Menabilly (said to be inspired by a real Menabilly) in "The King's General".  A later novel called "The House on the Strand" also has an ancient house that seemed inspired by Menabilly.

The author does not seem too comfortable in the London society scenes, but on her home turf, the great country house, she is in her element.  Whether it is an action scene, describing a pirate attack in a great detail, or life and manners in the country houses, she is perfect.

The novel is a fast-paced thriller.  There is action and a lot of romance.  When Dona St. Columb falls for Jean Aubrey, she does not hold back and they have a full-on affair.  There are captures and hangings and daring escapes and adventures.  Nary a dull moment, we can say.

This novel was adapted into two movies, one starring Joan Fontaine as Dona St. Columb made in 1944.  A later version starring Tara Fitzgerald (1998) departed so much from the novel right at the start, that I abandoned any attempt to view it.

This novel is not as famous at "My Cousin Rachel" or "Rebecca", yet it deserves to be.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Harper Lee - Go Set a Watchman

+HarperCollins Publishers
+Amazon.in
+Kindle Books

I will not comment on whether I think this book is written by Harper Lee or not. I will merely judge the book as it is. Is is a good book? Is the story good? Is the writing beautiful?

I cannot disassociate the book from To Kill a Mockingbird.  Even if it were a derivate, it would be hard not to be thinking of the book that came first.  Honestly, I ordered the book because I could not ignore it.  Harper Lee is the official writer and the book she wrote tops my best book list.

That said, I approached the book with zero expectations.  My expectations were justified.


The story picks up years after the happenings in To Kill a Mockingbird .  

Scout, or Jean Louise Finch, is now 26 and living in New York. She returns to Maycomb on a vacation. 

We get a look at what our favorite characters are up to. Atticus is in his 70s and suffering from arthritis.  Aunt Alexandra takes care of Atticus, Uncle Jack lives close by. Calpurnia has retired, Dill is visiting Rome and Jem is dead.  

Boo Radley is nowhere.  There is no mention of the Radleys at all.  Of course, years have passed.  The face of Maycomb is changing.  There are some constants, some variables.

Jean Louise returns to Maycomb to her childhood sweetheart, Hank Clinton. Aunt Alexandra does not approve of Hank, he is white trash and not quality folk like they are.  That makes Hank look all the more acceptable to Scout.


Jean Louise has to make a decision about whether she should marry Hank or not.  Hank is a lawyer now the right hand of Atticus.  He is quickly gaining a foothold in Maycomb society and has political aspirations.  Jean Louise does love him but is not sure if she is ready to settle down to domesticity.

While pondering over this, she is shocked out of her wits to discover that her idol, her beacon, her father, Atticus, is in favor of maintaining racial segregation.  Calpurnia seems disillusioned and the colored community is no longer in awe of Atticus.

The writing is nothing to write home about.  The novel itself is flat and undistinguished.  There are some flashes of spark when Jean Louise goes into flashback.  Our interest is piqued because it refers to the time that we know already and love so intensely.


There are too many descriptions of characters and events.  This stalls the novel and does not allow us the luxury of discovering the characters on our own.

I was underwhelmed by the novel.  But I was expecting to be underwhelmed.  The novel does not have the stamp of the author at all.  It reads more like a poorly written derivative fiction.  






Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Anne Tyler - Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

@knopf publishers
+Amazon.in
+Kindle Store, Kindle Books & More 


When the book opens, we realize that Pearl Tull is about to die. She is attended to by her son Ezra who lives with her.  Her daughter Jenny visits her but her oldest son, Cody is absent.

From here, we go into a flashback with the stories of Pearl, Cody, Ezra and Jenny unfolding gradually through their eyes.  The children have different reactions to their difficult childhood.  


Pearl had a hard time when her husband, Beck, just upped and left them.  The money that Beck sent for them was not sufficient to survive on.  So she took up a job at a store as a cashier.  Trying to manage three boisterous children and a house on a meager salary took its toll on her.  Sometimes she whacked the children.

Cody feels unloved.  He feels his mother and everyone around him, particularly the girls he brings home, love Ezra more.  He is poisoned by this thought and finds it hard to love anyone.

Jenny turns out to be bright and beautiful.  She wants to be a doctor and works hard for it.  She has trouble with her men.  It is hard for her to stay married.

Ezra is a gentle soul who loves feeding people.  He stays at home with his mother and runs a restaurant called "Homesick Restaurant".


The family meets often, but they are not close.  Each time they meet, they bring up some past grievance and part in a huff.  Ezra tries to get them all to have a dinner at his "Homesick Restaurant". Each time he fails.  They wind up having a row and leaving the table.

Anne Tyler dissects her characters thoroughly.  We get to know about their failings and their dysfunctional nature.  In fact, it is so intrusive into the minds of the characters that it gets to be depressing.

I am not sure I liked the ending.  I don't want to give it away, hence I cannot discuss it.  It seemed too pat.  I am not sure I wanted the characters to get this kind of a closure. People are likely to die as dysfunctional as they are when they are alive.

Anne Tyler is one of my favorite writers.  I have read many of her books.  She has this unique ability to make the commonplace seem interesting.   Her characters lead a humdrum life, but Tyler makes us see something unique in them.

So far, I have loved Breathing Lessons and A slipping down life most.





Thursday, July 09, 2015

Nirupama Subramanian - Keep the Change

+Kindle Store, Kindle Books & More
+Amazon India
+HarperCollins Publishers

Writing by Indian authors in English can be categorized into 3 broad types.

One is literary writing, where the subject is heavy, writing is excellent and the book is very edifying in all respects.  Writings of authors like Anita Nair, Shinie Antony, Cyrus Mistry, and several other writers who are settled abroad, like Devkaruni, Vikram Seth, and Amitav Ghosh fall into this category.

In the second category come a lot of good writers whose subject matter is something frothy and peppy, writing is pretty good, usually full of Indian-English, catering to a discerning audience who want a well-written book, but do  not want to be weighed down by a heavy subject.  Luckily, there are quite a few contenders for this slot. Madhulikka Liddle, Anuja Chauhan, Vani, Rupa Gulab, Kiran Manral, Andaleeb Wajid spring to my mind instantly.  I am sure that are more, may their tribe increase.

Lastly, there are many many writers whose writing is terrible and subject matter headache-inducing. The only thing in their favor is that they have a very good marketing plan.  Discerning readers marvel at their success and the readers who actually do read such books.

Keep the change belongs to the happy second category. It is well written and well plotted.

Damyanthi Balachandran has lived all her life on Amman Kovil street in Chennai.  She has excelled academically and is a CA, now working for SSV and Sons as an accountant.  At home, she faces the anxiety of her mother who wants her married off to a well placed Tamil Brahmin boy.  She is happy in the simple life, spends her time reading books, and rather uncharacteristically, watching Sex and the City on HBO.

Her mother's efforts to get her married get to her eventually and she decides to leave home.  She gets a job with First Global Bank and moves to Mumbai.  Damyanthi's first brush with the Corporate World is not very good.  Luckily, her colleague, and a fresh recruit like her, Jimmy, becomes a chum.  Together they move around the bank like flotsam and try to find their moorings.

Damyanthi's mother has new anxieties now.  She wants to make sure her daughter does not stray from the path of  "virtue".  Damyanthi would like to be a little more adventurous but finds herself holding back at key moments.

The book follows Damyanthi's journey into a new world and how she finds her feet.

The book is written, interestingly, in the epistolary fashion.  Damyanthi writes to Vic, short for Victoria, a friend who is very rich and settled abroad.  Vic has a very interesting life, unlike Damyanti.  There are times when we wonder if Vic is really Damyanthi's alter ego.

Nirupama Subramanian is obviously a very interesting author to follow.  Her second book, Intermission, is supposed to be very different from the first.  It should be an interesting book to read as well.







Sunday, July 05, 2015

Amitav Ghosh - Flood of Fire

Publisher: +Penguin Books USA
Bought: +Amazon.in

This is the grand finale to the amazing Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. What a journey it has been.

Sea of Poppies set us on a journey abroad the Ibis with a motley group of Indians, Americans, British and Lascars.  We learned about the languages and the cultural milieu that its various characters came from.

River of Smoke set us down in Canton to find out about the opium trade. China buys opium but is torn apart by its use.  Commissioner Lin is determined to stop the opium trade even if it means going to war with the British.

Flood of Fire begins with the story of Kesri Singh, Deeti's older brother and a havildar in the East India Army.  He has just heard that Bhyro Singh has been killed abroad a ship, also Bhyro's nephew and his sister Deeti's husband, Hukum Singh has been killed. This news intrigues him as he did not hear anything from his own family about Deeti being widowed. It sets him reminiscing about his past and how he came to join the army at the behest of Deeti and Bhyro Singh.

We learn about the curious recruitment process in the various armies at the time.  There was the Mughal Army at Delhi which was deemed to be the best.  Then there were various principalities who were looking for soldiers. The recruit had to be canny and pick a good army that would pay it a good and regular income.

In Bombay, Shireen is devastated by the news of Behram's death.  Even more, she has to bear the ignominy of Behram having died bankrupt. Her brothers are determined to wipe out Behram from their lives.  Further to this, Shireen has come to know that Behram had a son by a Chinese woman in Canton.  Shattered by this discovery, she decides to go to Canton to meet the boy and also try to recover the money Behram lost.

In Calcutta, Zachary finds himself facing a lawsuit for the murder of Bhyro Singh on his ship and the escape of convicts.  He is cleared of all charges, but his license is held back pending a fine of 100 rupees. He gets a job with Mrs. Burnham to tidy up a boat they confiscated from Raja Neel. He finds Mrs. Burnham taking an undue interest in his sexual health.

The scene shifts back to Canton where fierce fighting is about to take place between the Chinese and the British.  Many of the original passengers of Ibis are in Canton on various business. Their fates are still intertwined and they keep running into each other.

For a while, I felt a little tired out by the stories of Shireen and Zachary.  They seemed neverending.  But once the characters land in Canton, Macau, and Hongkong, all was well. The story trotted along very well.  I was afraid the lives of all the Ibis characters would not knit together well.  I fretted about the absence of Deeti and wanted to know more about her.  In fact, I even sneaked peeks into pages ahead just to find out how things were going to be eventually.

All I will say now is that the story does come together very well in the end.  There are some deaths, some heartbreaks, and some meetings.  A story of this proportions could not have ended well for all its characters. But I was completely satisfied by the end.

Amitav Ghosh has presented us with a modern epic here.  He has researched painstakingly into every minute detail of those times and the lives of people who belong to a variety of class and culture.  We get to know all about the peasants of Bihar to the Lascars who run the ships. From the highly cultured memsahibs to the way nawabs lived in those times. Parsis of Bombay and shipping merchants of Calcutta are brought together by a common interest, Trade.

It also presents us with the fact that it is Trade that makes the world go round.  But for the profits yielded by India and China,  the British would not have bothered with us.  On the heels of their greed to eke profits out of these regions came the need to rule over us.

We are also apt to blame the mixed Hindi-English, called Hinglish, upon the youngsters of today.  The fact is, the British and Indians were mixing Hindi and English as far back as the 1840's! Language has always been a dynamic thing that tends to break out of grammatical stranglehold and morphs into something new every few decades.  If this was not true, we would still be speaking like Shakespeare.  In this book, we get plenty of examples of how language was also evolving, along with the way of dressing.

It is a wonderful tale that makes the times (1840-1841) come alive.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Han Suyin - The Four Faces

@Panthar Publications
.bought @Blossoms, Bangalore (2015)

Books also follow fashion. Just like a wide leg or a low-rise pair of jeans, a certain author becomes fashionable and all the book reading public must read him.  At such times, book shops and libraries are flooded with titles by the author.  Once the craze subsides, just like shopkeepers who would not stock bell bottoms on their shelves, the once popular books vanish off the book shelves and readers wanting to get their hands on such books are left looking for them in vain.

Somewhere in the 60's Han Suyin became very popular.  She wrote candidly about her experiences as a half Belgian half Chinese girl growing up in China. I was lucky that my stepmother, who came from USA, brought several books by Han Suyin along with her.  I read several books by her during the 70's and 80's.   I even owned a copy of And the rain my drink, an excellent, fictionalized account of the time Suyin spent in Malaysia. 

Despite the merit of her works, Suyin has gone out of fashion, and her books are no longer readily available.  Some old copies are up for sale in USA via Amazon, but that is it.  Such is the tragedy of the publishing world, and of most businesses. They are so driven by pre-configuration of profits that they sometimes kill ventures that could be profitable in the long run.  I was lucky to procure some of her books from Blossoms, the celebrated second-hand bookstore in Bangalore.

This book by Han Suyin was published in 1963. It is not the best book by her.  Yet it is full of her signature themes. The tussle between Capitalists and Communists.  A small Asian country reeling under the war between these two that is taking place at their cost.

This time the country is Cambodia. A group of authors have gathered here to take part in a conference that examines the merits of being 'neutral'.  Cambodia has no intention of being aligned with either the Communists or  the Capitalists.  Ulong Serap, a venerable Buddhist monk and a Prince is organising this conference. He is also famed for predicting the past.

The conference is full of a cast of varied characters, Gion, who is returning to Cambodia to get another look at Angkor Vat and also attend the conference.  His cousin, Sumipoon, is attending with her husband and a brood of children.  She is related to Ulong Serap.  She is a writer of several successful romance novels.

Sheila Manley is a there with her father and stepmother.  Her father is an economist, come to conduct a study in Cambodia.  Her stepmother Eliza is a famous model and is being photographed against the monuments.

Gion and Sheila fall in love with each other but carry too much baggage to admit it.  Gion is too wrapped up in himself to try and understand Sheila.  He finds himself becoming aloof and jealous every time she talks to another man.  When the real test comes, he finds himself treating her like an object, just like the other men around him.

There is a rich cast of characters in the novel.  Mary Faust is an aggressive activist who likes riding roughshod over others.  Chandra Das is an erudite Indian who is in the thrall of Mary.  Mary's mousy secretary, Mabel Despair who must come into her own if she has to survive. Apart from them there are several others, the Frenchmen, Lederer, Paulet and Jean Deroulede. some Pakistani and American authors that make the gathering international.

In this heavily intellectual backdrop, the characters often pontificate on the merits of being communist or not. "Meeting at such porridgy places as congresses are philocide," exclaims a character in the book.

Sheila becomes involved in passing drugs unwittingly.  It puts her life in danger at the hands of drug dealers. There is a threat of a coup as well. Then there is a stolen artifact. On top of all this there are some mysterious disappearances and some deaths. These are the four plots running parallel to each other. Suddenly an innocent conference turns sombre when all this things start happening.

Gion, who has long been inactive and passive to things around him, finds he has to pull his weight and act if he has to save his beloved Sheila.

This is not the perfect murder mystery.  It is too bottom heavy.  There is a surfeit of action in the last few chapters.  The early chapters are full of explanations about the many characters.  Despite these flaws, it is a unique look at the world of Intellectuals who talk much and act less. Han Suyin has satirized some existing intellectuals of the time.  If the murders that take place in the book were not so grim and tragic it could be seen as a light-hearted satire.

"The only constant is change" says Han Suyin at a point in the book.  I feel, the more things change, the more they remain the same.  The drug dealing that fuels wars and coup in this book now fuels terrorism. Drugs destroy the place it is sourced from. The growers and locals are ruined by its use and trading.  No one seems to benefit by such things but some well-muscled big countries.

Shiela stands for all that is innocent in this world, she is merely looking for laughter and love. Gion stands for the youth of the world, apathetic and useless. He refuses to act even though he understands how the world works.  His apathy causes more damage than the machinations of the evil.

"Each one of us a Bayon, a tower of many faces, eyes staring blindly towards the world, but actually only preoccupied with our own reflection." This quote from the book puts a finger on why our relationships fail.  It is because we are too preoccupied with our own self.

As a thriller, the book may contain flaws, but it scores heavily despite it because it makes you think.










Saturday, June 06, 2015

Anuja Chauhan - Those Pricey Thakur Girls

+HarperCollinsIndia
+Kindle Store
+Amazon India

Those Pricey Thakur Girls is about five daughters of Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur (retd), who owns a lavish bungalow on Hailey Road in Delhi. They are named in an alphabetical order, Anjini, Binodini, Chandralekha, Debjani and Eshwari.  Anjini, Binodini and Chandralekha are married.  Debjani has just started working as a newsreader in Desh Darpan, the state-sponsored news channel. Eshwari is in the final year in Modern School.

The story is set in the late 1980s. Justice L.N. Thakur is called BJ by his fond daughters.  Their house is flanked by a similar house that belongs to his younger brother Ashok Thakur.  Ashok is deep in debt and has sold his house to a contractor who is planning to pull it down and build multistory apartments in its place.

His wife, Bhudevi is upset about this, and also by the fact that her husband is sleeping with her cook. BJ's wife, Mamta, has to spend her days pacifying her sister-in-law and also dealing with the marital problems of her daughters.

There are plenty of typical family scenes in the novel with ghosts, past grievances, vexed relatives, married daughters with problems, nosey children and mongrel dogs frequently making an appearance. In the midst of everything, there is one Dylan Singh Shekhawat who is wooing BJ's fourth daughter, Debjani.

He is a journalist and is keen on exposing the guilty people involved in the 1984 Sikh Massacre.   Through him, we get to relive our memories of the politics of the day, An attempt by the then government to pass an anti-defamation bill to muzzle the press, and the ongoing case against the guilty in the Sikh massacre are written about.

In fact, the backroom chatter in media about these two cases and some other issues are very convincing. Also very convincing is the picture of a middle-class family in an upmarket area of Delhi.

The characters in the novel practically leap out of the pages, so well etched are they.  The language is firmly Indian English with a lot of vernacular thrown in.  It does not rankle, rather it makes you feel as if you really are listening in to a bunch of people talking.  This is the way we talk these days, with a lot of Hindi peppering our English, or a lot of English peppering our Hindi.

The plot has elements of family drama, romance and a thriller.  The thriller part was so gripping that I was almost sorry when we came back to the romance.  At no point in the book did the proceedings get boring.  This one is a page-turner guaranteed to keep your finger wet.

On the flipside, the author spends a tad bit too much of her time raving about the physical beauty of the hero. There are plenty of graphic curses and talk.  I have not heard such explicit talk among the middle classes. The heroine is a bit of a wimp.  WHY don't we get a spunky heroine who gets the guy?  It merely establishes the stereotype that the sweet girl makes a casanova see reason and think about wedding bells.

These few irritants notwithstanding, this author is certainly in for a long haul and I am certainly going to buy more books by her.  She is never going to bore me, I know.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Perumal Murugan - One Part Woman

Published: +Penguin india
Bought: +Amazon.in  +Kindle Store

This is the novel that drew fire from Hindutva outfits. An exasperated Perumal Murugan then declared that he would write no more and decided to withdraw his books. The original Tamil title of the book was Madhurobhagan.

The book was translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. He has done a laudable job of it. The book manages to retain a colloquial feel without losing a grip on English language.


Kali and Ponnan have been married to each other for the past twelve years. It was a love match. Kali was friends with Ponnan's brother, Muthu. He had an eye on Ponnan since long. One night, after a bout of drinking and hanging around, Kali asked Muthu if he would like him as a brother-in-law. Muthu agreed instantly and even spoke to his parents and fixed the match.


Kali and Ponnan are blissfully happy together. The only thorn in their side is the lack of children. This lack is not just for themselves, it is an eyesore for the entire community. Anyone feels free to comment upon it, taunt Ponnan about her barrenness, Kali about his impotency. The couple tries to redress the wrong by doing everything in their power. They go to temples, take vows, make offerings, undertake difficult tasks. All their efforts to waste as Ponnan continues to menstruate each month, much to her sorrow.


Ponnan is willing to do everything, but she draws a line at the suggestion that her husband marry again. Luckily for her, Kali is as unwilling to marry again. He is deeply in love with his wife, but there are other factors that are behind this decision as well.


They are willing to live as they are. They are a loving couple and are happy in their life. But the societal pressures are too much for them. They are made to strive continuously. The constant barrage of insults and taunts threatens to tear apart their peace and harmony.


One day Ponnan's mother decides to spend a night at their place. Instead to sleeping with her daughter, the lady decides to draw her cot over to where Kali's mother sleeps. The ladies spend the entire night whispering to each other. Ponnan's mother has a scheme for making Ponna pregnant. What remains to be seen is whether the couple will agree to it.


The novel is full of a wealth of detail about the life of a young farming couple somewhere in the pre-independence era. We are used to extolling the virtues of our society and how it gives us a sense of security. Here we see its destructive side too. As long as you are going according to the general plan, marry, be productive, have children, everyone is happy. But if your life deviates from the plan, you are lambasted roundly, and anyone can take potshots at you.


This is the mean face of the society. Feuds over property are just around the corner. Your relatives are nice to you only because they have an eye on what you can give them. Even though it is nobody's business, everybody reserves the right to comment on how you conduct yourself. Such interference can not only be annoying, it can be downright destructive.


The story is set in a pre-independence era, but many of these ills are still pervasive.. Women still bear the stigma of being childless. Our neighbors and relatives still think our business is theirs to merrily comment upon.

The novel is not entirely without flaws. The story tackles some parts in a very compartmentalized manner. For instance, the details about the couple's attempts at appeasing the Gods are all put in one long stretch. Later, we are treated to long passages about how the couple deals with the suggestion of a second marriage for Kali. It reads more like a documentary instead of a story.


Towards the end, as the story moves towards a tantalizing climax, we are suddenly diverted by digressions in the story.


These flaws do not hinder the value of the story, however. We are given a very incisive look at how a narrow-minded society does not hesitate in riding roughshod over a happy couple. For this, and for a very detailed look at the way of life in those times, this book excels.






Monday, May 25, 2015

Daphne du Maurier - The King's General

Published: Landmark
Bought: +Kindle Books   +Amazon.in

The King's General is set in the civil war in England that lasted from 1642-51.  Cornwall was divided between landowners who were either the Royalists, loyal to the King or the Parliamentarians who believed in a democratic rule.

Against this backdrop, Daphne du Maurier sets an unusual love story between a handicapped woman and a brash General.

The story starts 15 years prior to the civil war when Honor Harris, a beautiful debutante, is smitten by Richard Grenville. Their love is not endorsed by Honor's family as Richard is seen as a debt-ridden soldier of fortune.  Her family is forced to agree to their engagement when Honor flees her home to avoid being engaged to another man.  A freak riding accident renders Honor handicapped, and confined to a wheelchair.

She breaks up with Richard and refuses to see him.  He goes away and marries a woman for her money. The civil war of 1642 brings Honor and Richard back together. Richard cares not a whit for her disability.  Honor finds she has to nurse her beloved Richard and listen to him as he rants against  incompetent colleagues who hinder the path to victory.

Richard Grenville is every inch an anti-hero.  He is brash, arrogant, foul-mouthed.  He likes to have his own way and does not care for other people's feelings. He is not above using force to loot and pillage what he believes is his by right.  He is also an excellent soldier, but his high-handed behavior lands him in trouble.  He does not know how to negotiate with his colleagues and it loses the war for the King.  Even worse, because of his behavior, no one is ready to stand by him when he is in trouble.

The book also has another character, Gartred, Richard's sister.  Like Rebecca and Rachel, she is also a wanton woman who cares only for her own appetites, whether for sex or for money. Honor is no wilting lily either.  She speaks her mind, and despite her handicap, is very independent.  She does not allow her crippled state to cripple her mind.  She remains cheerful and a person others can depend upon.  She plays a very active role in the drama that unfolds around during the height of the civil war.

There is a lot of drama here, intrigues, battles, secret rooms, spies, ravages, escape, and arson. The characters are well etched.  Dick, Richard's effeminate son who longs for his father's approval but gets only the sharp edge of his tongue. Honor's brother, Kit who first brings a Grenville into the house by marrying Richard's sister, Gartred.  Robin, another Harris sibling who loves Gartred as well. Jonathon Rashleigh who owns Menabilly where the drama plays out.  He is Honor's brother-in-law and keeper of many secrets.

Here also, as in Rebecca, the house where they live plays a major part. Menabilly, a house that Daphne du Maurier once stayed in, was the inspiration behind this novel and also Manderley, Maxim de Winter's house in Rebecca.

This novel is not as popular as Rebecca.  The story here is more complex, as it involves a lot of intrigues apart from the main story of the love between Honor and Richard.  I would rank it as one of the best by Daphne du Maurier.

This novel seems to have something in common with The House on the Strand, a later novel by du Maurier.  I will have to re-read the book to find it out, which is not a bad prospect. I have probably read The House on the Strand as often has I have read Rebecca.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Colette - Claudine in Paris


Claudine lives in Montigny and is planning to appear for her higher certificate in school when her father decides to move to Paris.  You see, he is in the middle of writing a book and needs to communicate frequently with his Publishers.  He cannot abide the slow postal system and declares that moving to Paris was the only solution.  Claudine is initially excited by the idea of moving

She declares slyly to her friends that they will not be able to bore her for long as she is moving away.  Her best friend, Luce is distraught.  Just before the actual moving takes place, Claudette has misgivings about leaving her beloved Montigny with its beautiful woods and flowers. There is nothing to be done now, the things are packed, their home let to a tenant, quarters taken up at Paris.  So Claudette packs her cat, Fanchette and sets off to Paris.

She hates the dark, shabby flat in Rue Jacob on sight. She takes ill on arrival and has to spend a long time in bed.  She is bedridden for months and her lovely long hair is cut off as it had matted and could not be combed.  She recovers her health gradually and takes stock of her surrounding.  

Her father takes her to visit his sister, Madame Coeur.  It is there that she meet Marcel, her Aunt's grandson.  Marcel is just a little bit older than Claudette and delighted to find a playmate.  Claudette is also delighted to have a companion at last.  

She also meets Renaud, Marcel's father.  He is a merry widower and does not really get along with his son.  However, he tries to be friends with him and takes him and Claudette to dinners and concerts and plays.

Claudette is settling down in Paris now, having discovered friends and dressmakers.

On the face of it, the book is a simple tale of a young girl, rather in the style of a diary.  Yet, Colette paints a charming and an intimate picture of all things around her.  She describes the doings of her father, her cat, her housekeeper Melie, her Aunt Coeur, Renaud, and Marcel.  We are drawn into her little world, and it is engaging. 

Here is what she says when she meets Marcel for the first time, "I gave him my hand without saying a word, I was staring at him so much. I'd never seen anything so charming! But he was a girl! A slip of a girl in breeches! Fair hair, rather long, parted on the right, a complexion like Luce's, blue eyes like a little English girl's and no more moustache than I had." 

It is Colette's uninhibited and a lyrical style of writing that is the best part of this book.  The book contains references to homosexual preferences of Marcel, who is involved with a schoolfellow of his, called Charlie.  Luce also makes many sexual advances towards Claudette, which are firmly repulsed.  The novel was published in 1901 and at that time these may be shocking revelations.  In the preface, Colette talks about her husband asking her to put more 'naughty' stuff into her writing.

We have come a long way, and whatever Colette writes is pretty tame by current standards.  What is still extraordinary is her beautiful descriptions of everyday things.

Published: Vintage
Bought @kindle_store amazon.in



Monday, May 18, 2015

Daphne du Maurier - My Cousin Rachel

Philip Ashley lives with his cousin in a large house with farms in Cornwall.  Philip was orphaned at an early age and was taken under the wing of his cousin, Ambrose.  They live together as two happy bachelors.  Good times rarely last, as we know.  Ill health forces Ambrose to spend his winters in Italy.  On one of his visits, he meets his cousin Rachel there.

Philip soon learns through letters sent by Ambrose that they have married.  Soon, the letters cease to happy and speak of illness and treachery. Philip is alarmed and rushes to Florence.  Alas, he is too late.  His cousin has died and he suspects Rachel poisoned him.  He returns home to find that Rachel has asked to visit him to return Ambrose's things. He is quite prepared to have a showdown with her.

He does not reckon with meeting a beautiful, sad widow.  Philip begins to doubt his suspicions about Rachel. She seems like a kind, charming person who just wants to do good deeds for people.  But there are some  reminders of the past that make him doubtful once more.

Daphne Du Maurier gripping story has our interest right at the start and keeps us turning pages.  The story has been told from the point of view of Philip Ashley who is a callow youth smitten by his cousin's widow. The reader is also left wondering about the innocence of the enigmatic Rachel, and the fate she meets.

This has been made into a film starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland.  Usually, Hollywood likes to distort the original story in its film adaptations.  I do not think this story can be distorted much.  I am in the process of the watching the film and will write about it on my film blog soon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

John Hennessy - Murderous Little Darlings

                                     Published: Self
Bought: amazon.in, Kindle store

Marcus, Rocco and Juliana are 9-year-old triplets who lost their mother in childbirth.  They are angelic to look at and draw cute comments from people who see them for the first time.  They are not what they seem.  In fact, they are struggling to discover who they are.

Marcus is the eldest of the triplets by an hour and their leader.  He says they are vampires and must feed on humans and kill them.  Rocco is the middle child and easily swayed.  He hates being in thrall to his older brother, but cannot help it.  Juliana is a strong child and knows her mind.

There are murders, kidnappings and police chases to liven things up.  People who look at the 'darling' triplets do not imagine their murderous designs.



This is a small novella, just 65 pages long.  It is meant to be the first in a series of 7 books.  It has a twist at the end which makes the readers want more.  

It is perfect if you want a quick read and love horror.  John Hennessy keeps his language sparse.  I am not yet an expert on the little darlings.  I expect reading other books in the series will make the picture clearer.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Alexander McCall Smith - Trains and Lovers

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Bought: Amazon.in, Kindle store
"This is the story of four people, all strangers to one another, who met on that train, and of how love touched their lives, in very different ways." 
David, Kay, Andrew, and Hugh happen to share a compartment on a London bound train from Edinburgh.

"It leaves Edinburgh behind it and begins its journey over the rich farmland of East Lothian.  Then there is a coast, that brings the sight of cliffs and sea-birds; and the North Sea which was still and smooth that day under the clear morning light."
All the four people have stories inside of them, and happen to relate them, or think about them during the journey.  Andrew worked as an intern in an art gallery and met Hermione at work.  He fell in love with her and his attempts to woo her makes one of the stories.

Hugh has a love story too.  He once got down at a wrong station and ran into a lovely young girl whom he befriended and later had an affair with. All was going well until he learned some intriguing details about her past. Can he trust her?

David has a secret love from his past.  He once fell in love with a boy who visited the little place his family went to for summer, in Maine. Bruce was also holidaying in that place, he lived in Princeton where his father taught. A friendship struck up between the two, but David felt an excitement that was more than friendship.  He knew he had to keep his feelings in check always. Although they do spend time together, and Bruce never even learned what he felt like, this secret love remained with David all his life. While Andrew is relating his love story, David thinks back upon his secret summer love.

Kay's father came from a poor family in Scotland.  He emigrated to Australia to make something of his life.  He eventually worked for a railroad in a little place near Adelaide and struck up a friendship with a young woman via letters.  Did this pen-friendship turn into something stronger or did it die away?

All the stories are connected to railways in some manner.  The stories are related during a train journey as well.  Alexander McCall Smith manages to weave in references to Art and Philosophy in this book as well.  Andrew works in an art gallery, as his story is the longest of the lot, we get to hear quite a bit about paintings. My beloved series by the same author, the Sunday Philosophy Club series also referenced Art and Philosophy, as the main character in them, Isabel Dalhousie, is a philosopher who also collects Art..

The novel manages to be a light read, with great insights into the minds of its characters and life in general.  The prose is beautiful, as you can see from the two examples I have quoted  I am tempted to quote one more passage, here goes.
"There were all these places where the houses were not made of neat white board and shingle; where there was colour and movement and danger.  There was no danger in that small town, where people's lives led neatly and correctly to the grave; where the water came dosed with chemicals and the food was cleanly wrapped. He wanted to go somewhere else."

 
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