Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

+Bloomsbury Publishing
@Dial Press
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Juliet Ashton has written one biography of Anne Bronte and one book called 'Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War'.  This book was a great success and Ashton is on a book tour through England.  She is not happy about the subject of her third book and is on a hunt for a new topic to write about.  

It is somewhere after 1945.  The war is over, but there are still too many scars.  There is evidence of bombings all around and things are still scarce.

Just then, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams.  He happens to own a second hand book of the Selected Essays of Charles Lamb which once belonged to Juliet Ashton.  He is a pig farmer in Guernsey and they do not have too many ways of getting books.  He wants a favor from her; he wants her to give him an address of a bookstore which will be able to supply more books by Charles Lamb.

Kind-hearted Juliet provides him with an address and also speaks to the bookseller on his behalf. She also sends him a book of letters by Charles Lamb.  She is intrigued when he mentions that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Her curiosity is amply rewarded when she learns all about the Society and the circumstances it was formed in. She makes friends with all the core members of the Society and corresponds with all of them.

Over a period of time, through letters, she gradually learns of the trials and tribulations of their time under German Occupation. The horror, restrictions, hunger and privations they had to suffer are revealed to Juliet, and to us.  In fact, their founder member is still under detention somewhere in Germany.

Only thing left for her to do is to go and visit her new found friends and decide how best she can write a book on what she has learned about the German Occupation of Channel Islands.  The book is not merely about the war.  It is also about books and the wonderful classical authors, the Bronte sisters, Charles Lamb, Seneca and Jane Austen.  It is a beautiful meta-book about books.  We can feel goosebumps when we read how Wuthering Heights affected a first time reader. 
When Cathy tapped on the window, I was gripped by the throat.
It is about war, how human spirit endures despite all odds. It is about how a bunch of people in the boondocks find solace in reading wonderful works of literature.  It is about how love heals everything.

I am picking out the list of characters that has appeared on the wikipedia page of the book.

  • Juliet Ashton, author and protagonist 
  • Dawsey Adams, her first Guernsey correspondent and close friend 
  • Sidney Stark, Juliet's London-based publisher and friend 
  • Sophie Strachan, Sidney's sister and Juliet's best friend 
  • Amelia Maugery, Guernsey resident, hostess of the dinner party that started the society 
  • Eben Ramsey, Guernsey resident, important member of the Society 
  • Will Thisbee, Guernsey resident, creator of the first potato peel pie 
  • Isola Pribby, Guernsey resident, quirky society member and vegetable and herb vendor 
  • Elizabeth McKenna, a London-born young lady who was caught on Guernsey at the war's outset. She is the quick-witted founder of the society 
  • Remy Giraud, a Frenchwoman, friend of Elizabeth in a German concentration camp 
  • Kit McKenna, Elizabeth's adorable, ferret-loving daughter

The characters are absolutely adorable, all of them. There are several villains, especially the Germans. But there are some good Germans in this and some wicked Guernsey residents also.

Towards the end, the story does become a bit cheesy. There is a sweet little cheesy love story in here. But the way it is told is unique.
You see, the book is narrated in the form of letters.  An epistolary novel is not a novelty, but it has fallen into disuse.  However, in the capable hands of Mary Ann Shaffer, it is turned into a wonderful way to tell a tale.  The story is narrated bit by little bit.  One nugget revealed by one letter is explained a little later after a query by the protagonist (Juliet Ashton).  The true import of an incident sinks into our minds later when it is expanded upon further.

It is in this enticing way that we learn about this wonderful connection between Juliet Ashton and the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.  It is also about the relationship between Juliet and her fast friends Sidney Stark and Sophie Strachan.

In short, it is a lovely little nugget of a book which should not go unread by lovers of fiction.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Louise Rennison - Angus Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging

+HarperCollins UK
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

We are more eager to teach children how to obtain knowledge.  Go to school and turn into perfect scholars which will, in turn, help them to earn good money and live their lives in a bliss (or not) that mirrors our own.

We want them to turn into Mini-Me.  Or perhaps Mini-Obama or, at least, Mini-Raghuram Rajan.  In short, we want them to achieve all that we did not.

Teenagers have their own angst to deal with, thank you very much.  For instance, their body images, a boyfriend, dealing with peer pressure, trying to have fun. Even learning how to snog properly.

Georgia Nicolson is fourteen and wants to know all about life.  How does one trim a bushy uni-brow.  How does one look grown up when one is thin and gawky. How does one smile without spreading the nose too much.

Her best friend, Jas is snapped up by the grocery store guy, Tom.  Georgia is smitten by his older brother, Robbie, but he already has a girlfriend.

Her father has to move to New Zealand to look for a job.  Her mother seems to like the decorator, Jem, a bit too much.  Her little sister Libby is a pain, she leaves used nappies in Georgia's bed. Her cat, Angus, is a wild beast that dogs shrink from.

The book is full of hilarious episodes that start from page 1 and end when the book ends.  The book is written in form a diary, hence the word 'Confessions' is used in description of the book.

Most importantly, you don't have to be a teenager to enjoy this book.

There were concerns about the smattering of homophobia in the book.  It may not be entirely politically correct but it does reflect the immature thoughts of a teenager.  She also has some nasty thoughts about her parents, which are probably normal for  a self-centered Teen.

There are a series of books about the confessions of Georgia Nicolson.  Gurinder Chadda made a film titled 'Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging'.  The film takes liberties with the book a lot and sort of waters it down.  It is an enjoyable film but not a patch on the book which is just fabulous.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Jonas Jonasson - The Girl who saved the King of Sweden

+Barnes Real Estate Miami
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

Nombeko is born in Soweto in South Africa during the year 1961.  She is a latrine emptier.  Her boss, the manager of latrine cleaners, is fired by Piet du Toit, who is the Sanitation Assistant, and a replacement demanded.  As it happens, there is only one person available to replace him, Nombeko.

Nombeko is no ordinary girl.  She has a talent for numbers and an insatiable desire for knowledge.  All other toilet cleaners are addicted, like her mother, to thinner and pills.  From this inhibiting environment, Nombeko is able to win her freedom thanks to her canniness and move to Johannesburg with a view to living her life reading through a library.

As fate would have it, as soon as Nombeko lands in Johannesburg, she is run over by a drunk man.  She is badly injured and dragged to the court and fined for coming under the car of a white man.  She is condemned to serve the man for seven years to work off her fine.  This is how she comes to work as a cleaning woman for Engelbrecht van der Westhuizen.  She soon learns to capitalize on her situation

Engelbrecht is addicted to whiskey and knows nothing about the nuclear bomb facility he is heading.  He got the high marks in college because his father was one of the biggest donors of the University. Being thus privileged, getting the job was a cakewalk for him.  Nombeko helps him out now and then with her superior knowledge.

Trouble starts when Engelbrecht finds he has made seven nuclear bombs instead of six.  There is one spare bomb which will create problems for him and Nombeko as well.

In Sweden Ingmar turns from a Royalist to a Royalist hater when he hit on the head by King Gustav. He wants to sire a son who will help him realize his dream of making the King abdicate.  When the time to deliver his son comes around, he finds he has a spare.  His wife has given birth to twins.  He decides to call them both Holger and declare only one child to the world.

There is a spare bomb in Africa and a spare son in Sweden and their fates are intertwined.

I just LOVED the first few chapters of the book.  They were full of digs against racism and inequality. There was a lot of humorous commentary on the political situation of the time.  As soon as the story lands up in Sweden, things get rather slow.

The story spans several decades, so we are treated to the scenery passing by while the burning issue of what-to-do-with-the-nuclear-device is ticking away dully in the background.

The brilliant Nombeko who was so on fire in South Africa also becomes dull.  The denouement is a long time in coming and not really very impressive when it finally lands.  It has its moments, but nothing compares to the wonderful first part.

There are several references to the world political situation which are very funny and very tongue-in-cheek. Here is one that had me choking with laughter:
According to the president of the People's Repulic of China, they (the kidnapped people) were in good hands, but wasn't that what he thought about the people of Tibet.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Suzanne Morris - Galveston

+Random House Publishing Group
+Amazon India
+Kindle Store

In the year 1877, Claire married Charles Becker after being abandoned by his brother Damon.  She cannot bring herself to love Charles after knowing passion with his brother but she carries on with her married life dutifully.  She even moves to Galveston from Grady (in Oklahoma? The novel does not clarify).

Her deep-rooted unhappiness at being trapped in a love-less marriage makes her unstable.  She forms an infatuation for a parson living next door, Rubin Garret.  She dislikes his wife Janet and can barely get along with her.  To overcome her feeling of ennui, she beings prodding her husband to be more high profile and successful so she may also have the benefit of a glamorous lifestyle.

Will she succeed in her ambition of becoming a high-society woman?  Or will she fail at everything?

Serena Garret is the adopted daughter of Rubin and Janet.  The second part of the book is the story of her nineteenth year, in the year 1899.  Serena has a steady beau, Nick Weaver.  She has no intention of marrying him, though.   She has also become very attached to James Byron, who is the son of Ruth, the daughter of Claire's cousin.  He is like a kid brother and companion to her.

In this year, her heart is stolen by a travelling musician, Roman Cruz,  who is playing at the Seaside Pavilion.  At the end of the year, she decides to run away with Roman. She is not happy about the way Claire seems to be poking her nose into her affairs.

The third part begins in the year 1920 in Houston.  Willa is on the verge of marrying Rodney Younger when she discovers a tattered carpetbag in the attic.  She knows it belongs to her mother.  Before she can bring herself to marry Rodney, she has to find out who her mother was.  She runs away from the parents who adopted her in a bid to uncover the mystery of her past.

In the third part, all the secrets hidden by Claire and Serena tumble out.  We learn the outcome of the unfinished stories of the two women and how they are tied to Willa's story.

The 20-year jump between the three stories is interesting. With the change of each generation, the world changes a bit.  There is a huge gap between 1877, when Claire's story starts, and 1920 when Willa's story starts.  This change is skilfully brought out by Suzanne.  We are able to get a feel of the era that the character belongs to.   The story grips our interest and keeps us glued to the book.

The story of Claire, I feel, could have been shorter.  It seems to be going places quite pointlessly.  It is the longest part of the book (or so it feels).  The stories of Serena and Claire are pithy and neat.  Serena's story is very poignant and tugs at your heartstrings.

All the revelations that happen after Willa starts digging into her past are a bit overwhelming at times. Here too, the author meanders a bit, filling us in on unnecessary details.  Things happen too quickly and too conveniently to allow us to believe them.

These flaws apart, the book is a gripping read.  It is a very good romance novel about the recent past, full of intrigues and secret love affairs.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Shinie Antony - When Mira went forth and multiplied.

Mira has dreamed forever of being free of her family.  She achieves this when she moves to Bangalore.  Living alone in Bangalore, working in an office and fending off the attentions of an amorous landlord, she now dreams of snagging a man.

Enter Sam, the handsome, dashing man on deputation from Bombay office.  He has been posted in Mysore office for a short duration and is in Bangalore for a couple of days.  Sam zeros in on Mira and floors her completely.  She is jelly in his hands and gives in to him.  The next day morning Sam promises to call before he leaves.

Sam, we learn eventually, is not a free man.  He was in no position to make any promise or proposition to Mira.  He is married to Delta, for better or for worse, till death or divorce do them part. Unaware of this, Mira is feeling her rejection very acutely.  She feels she HAS to go and find out why Sam has forgotten all about her.

The novel, in Shinie Antony's hands, is a postmortem of relationships between men and women, between mothers and sons, between rich fathers-in-law and rather poor sons-in-law,  She strips her characters of their skin, bones and muscle till we see their souls with our naked eyes.

The parts that describe the pain that Mira goes through when Sam bails on her are extremely evocative.  She tries to remain normal but is all torn inside.

The story is full of pathos one minute and absurdly funny the other.  It takes us through crazy situations till we come to the end of the story and wonder how things can be normal for all the characters after all this drama.

This is an unusual novel rich in emotion.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Utkarsh Patel - Shakuntala

+Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd.

Utkarsh Patel is a professor of Comparative Mythology at Mumbai University.  He has put forth a different version of Shakuntala, whom we know as the wronged heroine of Kalidasa's famous play, Abijyanshakuntalam.

Patel goes to the source of the story, which is Mahabharata.  According to him, Shakuntala was the first female to make an appearance in the Epic.  Kalidasa used Rishi Durvasa to create a rift between two lovers.  But the original version in Ved Vyasas differed.

The novel starts with the story of Shakuntala's parents, Rishi Vishwamitra and Menaka, an Apsara sent from Heaven to divert the attention of Vishwamitra.

Menaka is ordered to abandon her child and return to Heaven by Indra, once the mission is accomplished.  Vishwamitra is incensed by the deception played on him by Indra and leaves too, to begin his meditation afresh.  The little baby girl is protected by Shakuntal (Blue Jay) birds.  She is discovered by Rishi Kanva who brings her up as his own child and names her Shakuntala.

Utakarsh Patel's Shakuntala is not only a wood nymph cavorting among nature as depicted in Kalidasa's drama.  She is deeply interested in various topics and can make up her mind about things. She is incensed when she learns about the story of Sati Ahalya.  Why is Ahalaya alone punished so severely for a transgression of which she was NOT guilty.  Why was Indradev let off so lightly.

Much later in the story Shakuntala is moved by the story of Madhavi, Yayati's daughter, who is loaned to various kings for begetting sons.

When she is accosted by the handsome king, Dushyant, she falls for him and believes him when he marries her and promises to make her son the heir to Hastinapur.  We do know the story from Kalidasa's version.  Patel tells us that Dushyant wilfully abandoned Shakuntala once he returned to Hastinapur.

The story is an eye-opener for us.  Not only does it enhance the image of Shakuntala as a strong woman who had the courage to give Dushyant a talking-to but also had the courage to leave him with her child and disappear into a world of her own.

The story is rather dense.  It is very sad as Shakuntala gets only a few days of pleasure with Dushyant and a lifetime of loneliness. In Patel's version Dushyant is not married either.  Despite him having a 'loose' character, he does not seem to cavort much with women. There does not seem to be cause enough for him to have not mentioned Shakuntala to anyone.

That apart, it is great to find Shakuntala turned into a fiery female.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Sachin Garg - Never Let Me Go

+Grapevine Publications

When we first meet Samar Garg he is in a deep depression.  He has had a very tumultuous twenty-first year.  He keeps himself locked up and does not speak to anyone.  With great difficulty, he thaws enough to share his life story with his friend Arshi.

Just a year ago he was over the moon.  He was in love with Kanika Merchant, a year his junior in college.  She lived in the women's hostel and they tried to concoct as many reasons for being together as they could.  Samar was living in a flat close to his college with his friend Roy.  Things could not be better.

Roy was trying hard to find a girlfriend and settled upon Maansi, Kanika's pricey friend.  In an effort to impress her he starts writing a novel.  He seems to be getting closer to attaining his objective too.

This is the last year for Samar at the engineering college and soon he will have to make forays into the world of employment.   But just then, when things seem so smooth for him he is dealt with a raw deal.

His world is shattered and he goes into a down spiral.  He leaves Delhi without any money and with only the clothes he has on his back.  He takes a train to Goa and starts working in a small shack-hotel there.  He will do anything but go back to his previous life in Delhi.  He waits tables, cleans up, learns to cook.

But will Samar learn to face up to things and quit running?  Will he ever learn that by running away he might be compounding his troubles?

Frankly, I am not fond of  'college-romances'.  I can do without those mushy maudlin stories.  Most of the time the language is intolerable and the proceedings are boring, to me at least.   They do have a lot of fans but I am not one of them.

Surprisingly, I liked Sachin Garg's book.  Firstly, he keeps his trump cards well hidden and it was very hard for me to predict what will really happen next.  Secondly, his book reads like an adventure romance (thanks to the Goa chapters) more rather than a boy-girl thing. Thirdly, he seems to like his heroines to be very strong which I appreciate.  Fourthly, he was able to sustain my interest from the page 1 to page 257, which is the cardinal requirement of every novel.

I won't say the language was top shelf, but it wasn't the pits either. It needed a stricter check.  One can use simple language without being ungrammatical.

I also have the author's next book in hand We Need a Revolution which has an interesting theme.  I am looking forward to reading it as well.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Winifred Watson - Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

+Amazon India 
+Kindle Store 
+Persephone Books 

"The person I worked for never gave me any work until the afternoon—he told me to bring some knitting in. So I wrote the whole book in the office." Winifred Watson.

Miss Guinevere Pettigrew is on the verge of being ousted by her landlady, she has no job in hand. If she fails to find one today, she would land up in poorhouse. Her employment agency gives out two addresses to her. One of them, Dylesia LaFosse requires a governess for her children.

Miss Pettigrew lands up on the doorstop of the posh address and rings the bell. After a long long time and repeated ringings of the doorbell, Dylesia opens the door. Dylesia has a problem on hand. She has a man in bed and another is likely to drop in any time. Hence, she needs Phil out immediately. Instead of asking Miss Pettigrew's business, she involves her in the problem. Guinevere is able to help her. This thrills Dylesia and she immediately puts her other problem, involving the other man, NIck, to her. Miss Pettigrew is able to help her there as well.

This seals the fate of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew. For the entire day, Dylesia keeps her close. Miss Pettigrew is a Parson's daughter and most conservative. It is still the 1930's. She is thrown in the whirlwind glamorous lives of stage artists, society ladies and fashion designers. She gets a makeover from the best people in business and begins to see how life can be enjoyed.

Through all this, she is always aware that these delights are hers only for a short time. Any time the bubble will burst, Dylesia will find out that she is destitute and disown her. With a feverish fervor of someone who has nothing to lose, Guinevere seizes the day.

Here is a delicious, charming little book that is such a keeper. I enjoyed the lovely drawings.

The story has a lovely pace. Dylesia has a host of friends and parties to attend on the day, so we get to meet a wide range of people. The characters are lively and interesting.

This was also made into a movie by Bharat Nalluri by the same name. I saw the movie way back in May 2009 and was completely charmed by it.

For the first time in my life I am torn in two. I loved the book and I loved the movie. The movie does NOT follow the book faithfully and I am not able to gauge if the movie could have been better for it. Why not just enjoy them as they are, especially as they are equally delightful.

My only grouse is that the movie changes the character of Edyth. In the book, she is merely a friend of Delysia's who is kind to Miss Pettigrew. Also, having seen the movie, I kept looking out for certain events, which spoiled my enjoyment of the book in the middle parts of it. Once I reached the end, I was too charmed to stop and try and compare them.

I mentioned in my movie review that Dylesia LaFosse reminded me a little of Holly Golightly. This book gives you the same kind of a feeling that viewing Breakfast at Tiffany's gives you. That things will turn out well and life will throw you pleasant surprise if only you will let it.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Tanushree Podder - Nur Jahan's Daughter

+Amazon India
+Kindle Store
+Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd.

Even if we studied just elementary History in school, we learned about the Mughal Empire and how Nur Jahan held sway over Jahangir.  

I was reminded of my History teacher who loved 'fictionalizing' our history lessons with stories of grand passion between Mughal emperors and their wives.   The best part was, we were allowed to pad our answers with all such stories.  We were required to write very long answers to each question and the padding helped.

Dubey Sir, our history teacher would have approved wholeheartedly of this historical romance about Nur Jahan's daughter.

The book begins in Burdwan where an unhappy Nur Jahan is miserable about her husband, Sher Khan.  He can be moody and aloof.  On top of that, Nur Jahan displeases him by giving birth to a daughter.  But Nur Jahan is made of stern stuff and she manages to draw her husband's attention.

Just when she is enjoying her life in Burdwan with Laadli and Sher Khan, her husband is ruthlessly murdered.  She is asked to be in Agra and serve the dowager queen.

Laadli is miserable in the court in Agra, she has no friends and is very lonely. She befriends Khurram but soon finds him gone.  She loves her grandmother's house but is forced to be with her mother.

Soon, she finds her mother being wooed by the Emperor.  It is very unpleasant for her as she blames him for her father's murder.  She has to watch her crush for Khurram die as she sees him falling for her cousin Arjumand.  She has to watch her mother turn into a ruthless schemer.

Nur Jahan interferes with her daughter's love life and gets her married to Prince Shahryar in the hopes of propping him up as an Emperor after Jahangir's death.

In all this, poor Laadli loses her hold on life.  She is lost in the shadows of her powerful mother.

The story is well told.  As in real life, in this story also, the shadow of Nur Jahan falls over Laadli.  We learn more about her than Laadli.  As it is fiction, the author could have imagined a more detailed life for Laadli, it would have made the tale more satisfying.

The ending was especially chilling.  With Nur Jahan's death, the story of Laadli ends.  What if Laadli really came into her own after her mother's death?  It would have been really interesting to imagine it that way.

However, this flaw apart, the story is very well told.  Tanushree Podder is one of our best writers in English.  I have enjoyed her book 'Boots Belts Berets' immensely.  It is a fine book about a cadet's life in a military academy, and one of my favorites.