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More Book Reviews

I haven’t only been reading my free books over the past few weeks. It is never that simple with me. So just a quick recap of what else I have read apart from the books I have mentioned already.

1.) The Stranger You Seek – Amanda Kyle Williams

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Meet Keye Street, the latest private investigator on the roll, a recovering alcoholic, ex-FBI profiler, divorced and good at her job. I liked the girl. She has just enough hang-ups to make her seem human and just enough brains to qualify as an extraordinary detective. She calls herself self-absorbed and selfish, but then who isn’t? In this book she must find a serial killer who not only kills his victims brutally but also enjoys staging situations in a way that would traumatize the family members in a much more twisted was than usual as well. It was a particularly mean and terrifying villain that the author dreamed up here and I was suitably horrified by his nerve and his invisibility.

2.) The Kingdom of Bones – Stephen Gallagher

I didn’t really like this book as much as I should have, considering that it ticked almost all the boxes of my favourite genres, from historical to crime to mystery to magic. But like most books set in England and with a hopeless love plot woven in, this one just became too dark and melancholy for my tastes.

3.) Playing Dead – Julia Heaberlin

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I liked this book. Its about a girl grieving for her father and with a mother in the throes of dementia, who receives a letter from a woman who tells her that she is her real mother. It was fast paced and full of completely unexpected twists and turns. The descriptions of the landscape were spot on and the author’s portrayal of a woman who loves the land and her home is absolutely believable. The relationships of the girl with her parents and her sister are lovingly scripted and make one root for the character all the way through.

4.) The Wicked Girls – Alex Marwood

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The wicked girls was at once chilling and frustratingly empathy provoking. Its the story of two girls who manage to kill a little girl in their care through a series of unfortunate events. But, its not a story only about that. Its a story of their lives when they collide again 25 years later. Its a story of a past that completely overwhelms every living moment of the two women. Its evokes pity in your hearts but you also understand the extreme bitterness in the heart of the woman who lost her little sister, her insatiable desire to get even. The last few pages were perfectly terrifying and absolutely believable.

5.) Defending Jacob – William Landay

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Another book about children and terrible deeds. Here, young Jacob is the son of a district attorney and is accused of a heinous crime. Its the story of the family’s ordeal as they deal not only with the allegations but also with the changing behaviour of their neighbours and friends during and after the trial. Most crime fiction deals only with the perpetrator and leaves out the long-term effects of his/her crime on his/her own family, apart from that of the victim’s. Again, one begins to empathize with their situation and to wonder how one would respond if it happened to one of their own neighbours. Real life so often gets in the way of the idealistic ways we imagine ourselves to be capable of.

6.) Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – Tom Franklin

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When it rains it pours. Another book about the childhood indiscretions that haunt the present. This is also about the unlikely freindship of two boys of opposite race and the same father. You figure that one out pretty early in the book, so I am not really giving anything away. It is another well written work with extremely well-etched characters. I liked them all and will be looking for other works by the author. A must read.

7.) Island of Lost Girls – Jennifer McMohan

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Another book on kids and their secrets! I don’t know how it happens but every time I pick up a particular theme, it seems to resonate in all books that I may have picked up completely at random. I think it is my super-power!

Anyway, this book was disturbing and complex – I mean the moment you read about a man in a bunny costume kidnapping  a little girl all the hair on your nape take an uncomfortable standing ovation. Rhonda is just a sad person, stuck on one guy she fell in love with all those many years ago, even though he is now fat and married to a woman who takes naked plunges in community jacuzzi’s. Apart from that, I thought she was smart enough, working her way through all the mysteries and secrets around her.

There are many more where these came from… but they must wait for another day fueled by a burst of energy like today.

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The summer in the house on the hill

This is a story of the summer of 1991 when I was about 11 years old and was visiting Nani and Nanu at their then home. To understand the story it is important to understand the layout of the place and listen to Elvis Presley.

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The house was on a plateau on a hill that was surrounded by tall majestic mountains covered with pine forests. The moment you crested the hill you were met with this huge flat plain, with an ancient banyan tree and the village common playing field on the right-hand side and a lightening-struck old banyan tree and the road towards Nani’s place on the left. The plateau fell away beyond the playing field and started descending on the road towards the village, so that you pretty much felt on top of the world. Nani’s house faced their landlord’s bigger home across a courtyard that had a traditional Tulsi plant in the centre of it. The landlords were an old couple who had married sons and lots of grandchildren, all of whom visited them every summer. The path that led to Nani’s place passed on by the side of the house through a forest of these huge hydrangea bushes and crossed a stream on stepping stones to move across the fields and towards the village. The stream flowed right behind my grandparent’s home and was covered by a natural tunnel made up of the overhanging and interlaced canopies of some wild shrubs that grew on both banks. The tunnel was illuminated with filtered sunlight falling into the stream and the many boulders that peppered it. The woods around the house were filled with white long-tailed fly-catchers that just zoomed around all day long. The woods completely enclosed the two houses giving them a feeling of being cut-off from the outside world.

In the field, just beyond the eastern boundary of the property, was an old banyan tree that had been struck by lightening many years ago. According to the landlord’s youngest grandson, who was 14 and did not appreciate little pudgy girls following him all around, it had been full of a dizzying variety of snakes and weird insects when it ruptured, which in turn fueled my 11-year-old imagination with all kinds of stories related to portals to another world and curses and lost princesses. The landlord also had a 10-feet-long king cobra skin adorning his drawing room that had been found on the playing field on the village common a long time ago. This was the source of another set of folklore, also told to me by my reluctant playmate, about a pair of king cobras that had lived in the village for centuries together. I was of course not so stupid as to believe that it was the same pair throughout the centuries but I did corroborate the story of their present existence from the man who delivered the milk in the village and found it to be true. My 11-year-old Bollywood-aided imagination then furiously wove a tale of real-life itchadhari Naag and Nagin in my own backyard. It was all very exciting. There was also a huge Gaddi dog that roamed around the village and was said to tear apart anyone who came across his path. And there was a family of long, black geckos that lived on the footbridge at the bottom of the hill that I just found creepy and nobody else minded.

One mid-morning, I was tooling around the stream where the grandson was working on a kite and trying his best to ignore my annoying presence while all the adults had filtered off to town or the village for some work or other. It was eerily quiet and strangely peaceful. The grandson finally decided that kite-making was not his forte and got up to walk back for a mid-morning siesta and, of course, I also got out of the stream to follow him. And then we both froze. In the small gap between the hydrangea bushes and the side of the house stood this huge 10-feet-tall hairy, black, Gaddi dog. Okay, I exaggerate, not 10 feet but it was definitely bigger than an average-sized dog and I was puny. And it had a reputation to live up to. It stood and stared at us. It didn’t growl – it didn’t need to. We were in its path. My hero seemed just as stricken as I was. Then he took a step back. So did I. The dog just looked at us. We stepped into the stream. I assumed we would make a break for the house on the other side of the stream, although we didn’t know them. Instead, genius pushed me into the tunnel into ankle-length water and we started walking backwards through the stream. ‘Why are we wading in the stream?’, I whispered. ‘He can’t smell us in the water and so he can’t follow us!’ came the stern reply. Anyway, when boy-wonder decided we were far enough away, which was about 10 feet from the mouth of the tunnel, we sat down on a boulder in the middle of the stream – in full view of the stepping stones across the stream. . I told you I was never that stupid. The dog had seen us disappear into the tunnel and I didn’t think he would need to sniff us out. In other circumstances, I guess this would have been a terribly romantic scenario – but I was too young and too scared of being eaten alive and I guess so was he. A few moments later, we heard movement on the path and then the werewolf – sorry, huge dog – stepped into the stream to jump across. We watched with bated breath as he moved along the stones with his slow majestic gait. And then he stopped – right in the middle of the stream. With all four feet balanced perfectly on the stones, he turned his head and looked straight at us! I think our bated breath became choke-holds across our throats. For a few moments, all the werewolf-attack illustrations I had seen in the fantasy horror books I had ever read flashed across my mind. And then that noble animal turned and loped away.

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After that afternoon, I stopped following the grandson around. He wasn’t so much of a hero anymore. He was just a boy. I still loved the summer. I scared myself with stories about the burnt tree and the pair of snakes and the gecko family and thought I was in an Enid Blyton novel when I sat and stared at the white birds diving for the dragonflies or waded in the tunnel in the stream.

The blue-pink hydrangea bush always reminds me of that house with the tunnel and the incident with the dog and that warm beautiful summer.

 The bird of paradise picture is from http://flyingbeautieshimachal.blogspot.in/ and the canopy is from Pinterest.

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Invisible – James Patterson

This book was sent to me by Random House India in exchange for an honest review

This was the second book by James Patterson that I have read in the past few months and, contrary to my first brush with his work, this one really lived up to its claims of being a ‘thrilling fast-paced’ read.

The book cover remains true to the theme of the book, depicting a woman obscured by smoke and shadows on a background of red. Its simple and sends a clear message to the reader about what they might expect to find in the book, which is what a good book cover must do. It was way better than the book cover on his last book that I read with a photograph of a hunky agent complete with shades superimposed on a collage of a city by night with choppers in the air.

The story revolves around an FBI agent, Emmy Dockery, who lost her sister to a terrible accident a few months ago and in the process of investigating her death uncovered the carefully concealed footprints of a serial killer. Nobody believes her, thinking her to be a simply grieving sister, and she is being pushed out of her job in a polite and very bureaucratic way. To top it all, she has a sleazy boss who deserves a nice kick to his nether regions and also holds the key to her entry back into the FBI and getting an investigation started, the story of so many working women in the world. She turns towards her old flame for help, whose heart she broke and who has the ear of the director of the FBI. Once she has the attention of the top brass she must then prove to them that the completed unrelated and ‘accidental’ deaths occurring all over the country are actually related and must be investigated.

I  liked the story. I started flipping through it and then couldn’t put it down until I had finished it. The story begins its fast-paced track right from the first chapter and you are hooked. The main protagonist is persistent and not very screwed-up, which make her an almost likable character. Her research and her obsession make sense and the follow-through is perfect. Several chapters written from the killer’s perspective are suitably chilling and blend seamlessly into the narrative.

Her love life though is absolutely irritating. The typical girl meets boy, falls in love, boys proposes, girl says no due to her commitment issues, break-up happens, after a few months/years, girl comes to boy for help, boy agrees because he still holds a candle for her, sparks-sparks, girl again withdraws, boy becomes grumpy, boy leaves, girl in life-threatening situation, boy makes last-minute entry, girl realises the value of love, all is well. Phew! Why? This ‘I love you but I am damaged and thus I must leave you until you come to me on your knees and take all my bullshit and I finally give in’ formula followed by the movies and modern romances just chips away my good humour. Thankfully, the love affair does not overwhelm the story which makes it all better.

Must read for all thriller fans.

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In Custody – Anita Desai

Reading morose Indian fiction is extremely trying on my nerves. It pulls me down and keeps me there for weeks after I go through any such stories. I don’t mean to say that human frailty and failings do not deserve an airing now and then. Its just that I have found that Indian authors have a knack for bringing out a deep well of hopelessness in their writings that are devoid of any stray ray of laughter or happiness to alleviate the sheer darkness of despair in the lives of their main protagonists. It is certainly a gift and definitely a souvenir of the society we grow up in but takes a strong stomach to digest when presented in all its naked, terrifying glory.

This is the story of Deven, a professor of Hindi in a private college in Mirpore, deeply dissatisfied by the ‘stagnant backwaters’ of his life and a devotee of the works of the Urdu poet Nur. Deven is the eternal victim of life’s unfair vagaries from his viewpoint, is constantly cowed down by all and sundry and is in turn a tyrant towards the few people in his life who are under his thumb, namely his wife and son. He is a pessimist and overtly sensitive to all sorts of imagined and real slights coming his way and, yet, incapable of standing up for himself except in a whining and wheedling tone that seems to get on everybody’s nerves. Deven is not a likable person. At no point in the book did I feel sorry for him or want to know him better. His obsequious hero-worship of the once demigod Nur, who has now dissolved into a shadow of his former life, and his quite unnecessary anger on his spoilt hero’s behalf were a constant rub on my already frayed nerves (have I mentioned my nerves enough already?). The glowing foreword by one of the greatest writers of our times, Salman Rushdie, states that this is ‘not at all a bitter book’ but I most humbly disagree. It is bitter and sad and with the word ‘despair’ used repeatedly to describe Deven’s state of mind, the condition of his life and that of Nur it just makes for an altogether deeply gloomy read.

It is also a story of the decline of a language whose beauty and lyrical prose seemed to elevate the most mundane of topics to mystical heights. I remember my Nanaji reading poems and novels in Urdu and having a love of that language that he never quite got over. Various members of my family still hum ghazals by famous Urdu poets and reminisce endlessly about the beauty of the language. Nur, the poet, is a metaphor for the dying language in his decrepit home and ungainly body, but his passion for the language, which he constantly harangues Deven about, seems to take a backseat to others things in his life, namely, his ego and his desire to be the centre for attention.

All in all, I was not a fan of the story at all. I see that the book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and I feel extremely guilty that I am unable to appreciate the gems hidden in the prose but also feel that I must be honest in putting down my views however simple-minded they may seem to a more discerning audience.

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Random House August Book-bag

This month, I decided to take just two books, to do full justice to them. As it happens, I received the parcel day before yesterday and have already finished one book.

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But what was funny was the journey the books had to make to reach me. They were shipped to Chandigarh first from New Delhi. Then, Dad had to send them to me to Palampur stat, since I was leaving for Bangalore through Pathankot. Dad went with the books to the bus stop in the morning to send them by bus. Usually you give it  to the driver/conductor and tell them where it will be picked up. But it was Sunday morning and Poppy was getting late for golf. So, he asked an old gentleman standing there whether he was waiting for the bus that my Dad had come to meet and, since he was, my parcel was handed over to him. Rusty called up to tell me these developments. He said dad has said the man was going to Chadiar and was old and wearing glasses. I asked him to tell me where he was sitting in the bus to make it a little easier for myself. Rusty told me that Dad didn’t know because the bus hadn’t even arrived when he gave my books away! So, with fingers crossed we went down to wait for the bus at 3 in the afternoon. It arrived at 4 and the sweet man was standing in the bus waving the books about. In Himachal people are the sweetest and the most honest ones I have ever known. Thanks Dad for taking prompt action and thank you unknown uncle for giving them to me.

The books are:

1) Invisible – James Patterson

2) Bombay stories – Manto

I already finished reading James Patterson and will write my review soon. Today was just cleaning up home after 3 months of being away.

Ganesh Chaturthi tomorrow, the reason we rushed back! Ganpati bappa moraya!

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Palampur Book Club – Month of Poetry

Palampur had a welcome surprise for me this time around. It welcomed with its very own official and freshly minted book club! The book club meets every third Saturday of the month at the local Coffee Day at 11:00 am. The ladies choose a book each month and their greatest triumph has been the ability to source the books they require from Flipkart, which otherwise does not deliver to our little hill town. The group is an eclectic mix of women from different professions and backgrounds. There are those who are extremely eloquent and sorted in their views and in their understanding of the tomes they read and there are those who simply read for the joy of reading a story.

August was poetry month and everyone brought poems that resonated with them at some level. The poems were a mixture of both English and Hindi. The choices ranged from poems on angst, pain, philosophy, humour, patriotism, depression and (my favourite) romance.

The best recitation for me was the poem entitled ‘Chand’, a romantic poem by Pakistani poetess Parveen Shakir, in which the poetess compares her love to the moon. I think listening to the poem from someone who was so passionate about poetry and romance and the love of life was the cherry on top of a very decadent cake. There were a few witty and surprisingly thought-provoking poems by Spike Mulligan. I liked the one entitled ‘Me’.  Then their were a couple of poems by Sylvia Plath entitled ‘Morning Song’ and ‘Mushrooms’.

Yours truly chose a poem which is not very deep or philosophical, but one that I read when I was about ten and that I never forgot, through all the bits of war poems and Robert Frost, William Wordsworth and Tennyson that followed. Its entitled ‘A white rose’ by John Boyle O’Reilley and I first came across it in a story in Reader’s Digest. A man proposed to his wife with a ring inscribed with the last few lines of the poem and I guess blew her off her feet. I have secretly hoped one day someone would do that for me since then and still do. Oh, how the romantics spoil the expectations of little impressionable young girls.

The red rose whispers of passion,

And the white rose breathes of love;

O, the red rose is a falcon,

And the white rose is a dove.

But I send you a cream-white rosebud

With a flush on its petal tips;

For the love that is purest and sweetest

Has a kiss of desire on the lips.

The book next month is ‘Cuckold’ by Kiran Nagarkar. The premise of the story seems highly promising; alas I won’t be here for the book discussion.

All the best to the Palampur Book Club! May they have many lovely discussions over a cup of coffee in the months and years to come.