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The Children Act – Ian McEwan

 This book was sent to me by the wonderful people at Random House India in exchange of an honest review

The minimalist and yet, wonderfully eloquent cover of ‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan does complete justice to the story that follows. The image of a young boy jumping over a puddle on a very subtle blue cover gives the impression of a bird in flight viewed from afar. You can do little but admire his carefree grace and pray for his happiness in his innocence to last him a lifetime.

‘The Children Act’ opens with a husband asking his wife the dumbest question a man can probably ask a woman – namely, ‘mind if I have an affair with a younger, firmer woman to spice up my sex life?’ It would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sad. In creating Fiona’s husband, the author very subtly mocks the compulsive need of academics and intellectuals to ‘talk about’ and ‘discuss’ every thing in a ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ manner. As he sips his scotch and sits cross-legged in front of his naturally affronted wife, you can almost feel the waves of male academic superiority leaping off the pages of the book to smack you on the face. He discusses his ‘need’ for enlivening his sex life with such a well-meant air and appears so tragically martyred when he doesn’t receive the answer he expects that I almost burst out in an involuntary giggle. Only then, I turned around to look at the intelligent, over-achieving wife who is stuck to her chair in anger, horror, shame and guilt for driving him to say such things to her. And I realised what the real motive of the author in writing this essentially essay-like short story really was. It is a satire on our so-called intellectually progressed and spiritually elevated human beings who are actually as much the victims of the social norms that bind and rule us poorer souls. So, the wife is worried about pity from her colleagues and her friends more than how her husband’s callous decision/ lack thereof affects her. She seems to be the one in the relationship who loves deeper and so is naturally more hurt and more vulnerable. When she refuses the husband’s ‘request’, he leaves anyway. As predictable and understandable her decisions are up to this point, those that she takes succeeding this event  – regarding her marriage – are disappointing and, yet, just as easy to fathom. It is a testament to the fact that the most intellectual beings in the history of human civilization have been brought down by such an un-measurable entity as human emotion. It obviously takes much more than intellectual awareness to rise above petty human emotions in the majority of mankind. And, as cliched as it sounds, it the surfeit of money or the complete lack thereof.

This was actually the backdrop to the actual storyline. Fiona, the betrayed wife, is a High Court judge in Family court. Every day she takes decisions with regard to the lives of families torn apart by bitterness, hate or simply apathy. ‘Being fair’ is her major concern and she carried out her duties to that affect admirably. Until, that is, the day she comes across a case where despite taking a judicially accurate decision, she finds herself bothered by questions of life, religion and mortality – also leading to the eventual sex deprivation suffered by her husband. Ruminations on the relevance of religion on life and death choices in young adults or children occur throughout the narrative. The various cases mentioned in the novel deal with religion pushing individuals to choose between a death that supports the tenets of their beliefs and the joys that life will provide if they do not. It was immediately reminiscent of the case of the Hindu woman in a Catholic country who died because the doctors not only refused to perform a life-saving abortion of a dead fetus but also chose not to advise the family to fly across the pond where the operation could have been carried out. As much as I was impressed by the story, I was just as bowled over by the judiciary of a country that takes life altering judgement in 2 days and a social conscience of doctors that will do anything to save a life! When, if ever, will we see something like this in India?

Fiona’s judgement to save the life of a young man against not only his family’s beliefs but also those of the young man himself sets into motion a chain of events that end in tragedy and loss. Fiona’s guilt and inability to understand the essential innocence of a sheltered young man lead her into making choices which do not turn out to be correct on hindsight. But, it is again absolutely churlish to blame her – she is simply following the norms laid down by society and is, sadly, not unconventional enough to stick her neck out just like a majority of her accusers. How far beyond the limits of duty and short-lived empathy would you move to help an individual, especially if you have taken an embarrassing misstep midway?

The Children Act forces you to think back on all the little, tear-streaked faces you walked by in your hurry to work and ask yourself if you could do something to make a life better. And yet, it also asserts without punching you in the face with it the decree that this well-meant thought will again simply pass through an evening of academic discussion and brainstorming and into a forgotten anecdote the next day. The Children Act must be read as an essay on the very human condition of our world and of mistakes that may never be corrected by virtue of that condition.

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Being Short in a Tall World

I am short! Most of my family and members of my state are too. We come with our very own unique set of problems.

The first problem that all parents repeat ad lib to their short daughters is that of getting them married. That one is easy. We just develop awesome personalities, which makes tall men fall for us like tent pegs and, since love is blind, it works out pretty well for us (I caught me a 6-footer).

This C/N-neck is by choice! Not everyone is that brave!

This C/N-neck is by choice! Not everyone is that brave!

Buying clothes is always a heartbreaking challenge. Especially, dresses and tops that are V-necks for average-sized individuals, which become C(leavage)-necks or even N(avel)-necks for us. One can chop off a long dress from the bottom, but what can you do with the necks. So we resolutely fit our beautiful, brand-new dresses with bands of cloth to cover up, destroying the beautiful lines of the dress in the process, or just leave it in the shop with a few tears (from our eyes – I told you we develop great personalities and are not mean). Over time we learn and adapt, going for elegant boat necks and backless dresses.

Yes, some people have to bend their knees to look out their doors

When the doorbell rings, I can’t check to see who is on the other side because the peephole is too high for me. In a city where robbers are known to ring the bell during the morning and afternoon hours to do their tough jobs, this is a severe handicap. Yes, you didn’t think being short could actually be a life-threatening condition, did you?

Why restrict yourself to the bar when you can spread spindly, tall chairs all over!

Why restrict yourself to the bar when you can spread spindly, tall chairs all over!

Bar stools are a potential death trap. One is invariably dressed in tight-fitting, or, if you have good legs, extremely short, uncomfortable clothes and exorbitantly high heels – another concession to short stature – to visit the pub. To add to this when one has to maneuver one’s, not always, ungainly buttock onto a chair that is almost three-fourth of one’s height in a graceful manner, fun rapidly begins to fizzle out of the evening. If the heel slips on the thin, absolutely inadequate footrest on the stool or you miss the seat of the chair on the first hop up or if, due to your bad grasp of physics, you distribute your weight unevenly, you and – God forbid – your shape-wear drawers are liable to become the entertainment of the evening for a lot of people. This aspect usually leads to us being the designated drivers, since when you hop up you also have to hop down and you need all your faculties around for carrying out this delicate operation.

Public transport in India is a widely distributed and over-zealously used commodity. When I travelled in buses in Himachal, I didn’t really figure out this bit of problem since most of us average around the same height and the buses are built around those specifications. Plus, the buses are usually so jam-packed that one really doesn’t need to be holding onto anything. Also, the winding roads mean that drivers go at a steady speed and you are braced like a sailor on a ship for the gentle to and fro swaying motion of the bus. Then I moved to South India. The average height for women here is 6-7 inches more than that in my state. Therefore, the overhead bars for the unfortunate ones who are unable to snag a seat in a bus are about 6 and a 1/2-feet off the floor. The few times I travelled home from work in a bus, I found that I could just about reach the overhead bar with my fingertips. It was a horribly precarious position, considering the tendency of the drivers to speed up between traffic lights in an effort to catch the next green one, invariably lose that battle and then screech to a halt sending you headlong into the passenger standing in front of you. As I was jostled to and fro, I also found to my eternal regret that my height brought my face at the exact level of the armpits of my fellow travellers. Summer, sudden halts and the law of physics which states that a body in motion stays in motion led to the most embarrassing and sadly depressing bus rides of my life. The only solution to this was to give up cheap bus rides as a mode of transport forever.

The sad, colourless sailor

The sad, colourless sailor

I have lived with my short height for long enough to get used to all of that, but imagine my frustration when I decided to paint a vertical full-page watercolor. Since I am an amateur painter and don’t paint on an easel, it became almost impossible for me to even finish the preliminary sketch work. I tried standing the work-board against a wall, tried keeping it at an angle with all the pillows in my drawing room, sat up on my knees and even tried to sketch upside down. I finished the sketch a week ago but, unlike pencil, watercolor cannot be erased so easily, and I shudder to think how I will manage to paint this ambitious project without letting the colors drip down or smearing them with my clumsy hands and elbows. Worse, I might also fall on it, as I did repeatedly while sketching it, lending a human-sized stain to my boatman and his gondola!

Well, life sure teaches you new things every other day.

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Random House September Book-bag

Happy KarvaChauth to all my fellow hungry wives today! To top it all, its cloudy in Bangalore today and, no doubt, the moon is going to play pretty coy tonight. Hubby didn’t fast with me, considering that he has just been on a 10-day fast for Dusshera; I have no idea how he does it, I am getting pretty sulky within less than 24 hours of my last meal. Hubby’s gift to me is getting my paintings framed and on the drawing room wall.

Silly and sweet KarvaChauth gifts

Silly and sweet KarvaChauth gifts

And then the much awaited package from Random House arrived today. Two books seem just up my alley and one I am a bit apprehensive about, but that is the fun part!

1.) Private LA – James Patterson

2.) The Children Act – Ian McEwan

3.) Seven Wonders – Ben Mezrich

Now, if only the moon would rise at the correct time, then my happiness will be complete.

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The Unfathomable Toilet Etiquette of The West

If you are faint of heart or squeamish or having your dinner, you may want to skip this post.

The unfathomable toilet etiquette of the Westerners has had many points of argument with those of the East, especially since cable and satellite television brought those differences through Western dramas and movies into our drawing rooms. We have accepted and assimilated the Western-style toilets in our daily lives – whether they are as healthy as our Eastern toilets is a question we no longer bicker about – but that is about it. Drinking water from the bathroom faucets was one of the first things to scandalize the populace back home, until we were told that Westerners received ‘filtered’ water in all their taps – then we were just sad. Then, of course, there is the eternal paper versus water debate. We know that paper is just never going to get in those hard-to-reach places unlike water that trickles its way into all dark crevasses with ease. We are pretty smug about that one and magnanimously allow the Westerners their paper eccentricity and just shake our heads at their sometimes utterly silly ideas. But some things just move beyond head-shaking and better science.

East versus West

East versus West

‘Two and a half men’ has been a favourite sitcom of both hubby and me for quite sometime now, although we stick to the reruns where Jake was cute, Charlie is still alive and more than kicking, and Alan is being his miserly, defeated self. Every few episodes though we are presented with the image of one family member or other hugging the toilet bowl after a bout of heavy drinking. For some reason, this bothers me more than the double innuendo’s and the sexist theme of the show. They even fall asleep with their heads on the toilet or on the floor beside it.

Jake Harper from 'Two and a Half Men' hugging the bowl

Jake Harper from ‘Two and a Half Men’ hugging the bowl

And its not just this show. This is an oft-repeated theme for anyone who is suffering a tummy upset courtesy of too much drinking, emotional trauma or just bad food in American/Western movies and shows, and it manages to gross me out every single time. I mean, do they clean their bathrooms and toilet bowls with Hydrochloric Acid every single day for it to be clean enough to sleep there? I still remember this National Geographic documentary – remember the ones where they would film stuff in hyper-magnification and extreme slow-motion – where they showed how when you flush your toilets, tiny droplets mushroom out of the toilet bowl and settle on everything around like on the floor, the sink, the toothbrush on the sink and, of course, the toilet bowl itself. Granted, the human body is smart enough to fight off the minute amount of bacteria that it comes in contact with in this manner, but still it makes you think twice about bedding down in the loo.

Hugging it out !

Hugging it out !

Also, not everyone is a strict adherent of the ‘ Do not sprinkle, when you tinkle’ idiom. I am sure men talk on the phone, lean over to pick up something from the sink, dance to the violent songs playing in their headphones, rush out to answer the door bell halfway-through/while attending to the business of ‘tinkling’, which invariably must lead to ‘sprinkling’. Is it therefore smart to put your cheek on a rim which may be adorned by invisible droplets of liquid gold?

And what of the days when you have eaten that spicy Indian curry? Or, what about the times you catch a water-bug from contaminated pani-puri? Or, you drink milk past its expiry date? Your stomach churns and gurgles and rebels against such harsh punishment. The result is usually a case of what is known as the ‘runs’. They are also, more often than not, explosive. And explosions have been known to cause ‘splatters’ that have a far and wide reach. ‘Splatters’ stick on surfaces, dry and stay there waiting for a scrub off with the strongest acid on a longest-handled toilet brush or with conveniently moist cheeks or arms.

Still, if you are doing your hugging at your home, at least you know its all your own stuff. But what about the scenes on American television where people carry out their drink/trauma/drug-induced toilet hugging in ‘public’ toilets. (Pause for shudder).  Do they not think of all the people who have walked into those un-hallow portals before them, dropped their pants, placed their naked flesh on that toilet seat and let go of their unnecessary baggage? Do they wonder how many times a week a cleaner walks through there with a mop and how much do they really try to get it clean? Do they wonder how many unwanted fragments of someone else’s most private lives they are carrying home smeared on their knees, their arms, their foreheads and their cheeks?

There must be a reason why the westerners do not squirm when they hug their toilet seats, given their penchant for cleanliness, and yet, try as I might and as much as I love my American sitcoms and movies, I will never reconcile myself to this aspect of their culture. Will they ever grow out of it or will it be a practice that will eventually be adopted all over the world?

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Bangalore Literature Festival 2014

260920141265The Bangalore Lit Fest is really shining this year with a panel of guest speakers on topics ranging from horror to politics to Bollywood to music. It is definitely a more eclectic viewing this year than the one before. The venue is the same as last year, the grounds of the Crowne Plaza, and is beautiful and serene. The landscaped gardens with the small, artificial stream bubbling through and bottle brush trees dotted here and there is a perfect setting for discussing books and authors. The mike systems, like those everywhere, keep either screeching or shutting down completely at regular intervals. Thankfully, there are also a lot of young college volunteers who are quick to make amends and ensure the smooth running of the sessions. There is also an ongoing contemporary art and sculpture exhibition on the grounds for all to enjoy. The food stands were a little sad-looking on the first day maybe because the crowd was a little thin – it being a working day. I still remember the gorgeous food we sampled here last year and am looking forward to more of the same.

Two or three sessions are usually arranged at the same time and sometimes it becomes difficult to pick one over the other. The seating under canopied tents is comfortable enough.

Chetan Bhagat’s session was the one I wanted to catch first, since my brother is a huge fan and he wanted to be in the presence of celebrity by proxy. I was standing just at the entrance of the gardens under the shade of a tree waiting for Hubby to pay the cab and turned around to come face-to-face with the author himself. He was being escorted by three svelte girls in hep clothes and 6-inch heels. The pathway was completely empty but for the four of us, but since the svelte ladies totally ignored my presence I will do so too and say it was just the two of us. It was a perfect opportunity to get his autograph or even a selfie and I even made eye-contact with him and received a smile but I was so frozen by the ‘be polite’ and ‘don’t accost strangers’ etiquette drummed into me by my parents that I could only stare at him with a goofy smile as he sailed past. I think the goofy smile scared him a bit because he immediately asked the nymphs to ‘surround’ him in order to ‘protect him’ in a loud and clear voice. Really! Look what being polite gets you. People actually begin categorizing you as a maniac. His session was fun since he obviously is a good speaker with a lot of charm and wit. And I never did get his autograph afterwards – there was a huge crowd and it was really hot and I am too short (easily trampled).

We then wandered over to a discussion on the state of minorities in India and got ourselves well and truly riled up. The panel was composed of a set of individuals who were so far left that they had almost come full circle to the right. To hear them speak one would think India had declared itself a Hindu state and was systematically culling the Muslims in our country. Asma Jahanagir talked about Pakistan’s problems with their minorities and made some pretty valid points but according to her the great difference between our two countries is that ‘Pakistan recognizes that there is a problem whereas India does not’. I certainly admire her for her courage to raise questions in a country (Pakistan) that pretty much has a gag order on everything and everyone but this was a bit much to swallow. Nirupama Dutt was absolutely virulent in her aversion to the ruling party every time she was given a chance. According to her it would be so much more peaceful if Hindus and Muslims would inter-marry as the Hindus and Sikhs did in Punjab to counter terrorism and hate. Also, she pointed out that the present HRD minister was a woman from a Saas-Bahu serial in which she portrayed one Hindu festival after another. How that was relevant to the topic completely flew over my head! A member of the audience from Bihar made a much better and succinct point when he said that a riot starts between two communities and then becomes a riot between the minority community and the administration. He also asked why it was that after every incident of violence all the Hindu liberals flocked to the channels to denounce the violence and the members who took part in it and non of the Muslim liberals ever did. Not surprisingly, he never received an answer for that. There should have been a speaker with another view also on the panel so that it didn’t feel so much of a India-bashing bunch. I agree that the Hindus have suppressed the lower castes for hundreds of years and it is something which calls for recompense but it is absolutely fallacious to say we should be guilty of doing the same to Muslims.

The next session we attended was about the mindset of getting a job done in India and whether it will ever change. It was an interesting panel with both for and against speakers about the ‘Jugaad’ culture in India, a practice that can be taken as both a positive quality of getting a job done no matter the circumstances and a negative one that bypasses perfection by throwing things together in a haphazard manner. It seemed much more fun but I wanted to see Rani Mukherjee and dragged my hubby away before he could hear the whole of it.

Rani Mukherjee in a pink kurta and casual jeans looked more like a journalist than a movie star and I am not sure if I was disappointed by that. The session was overflowing with her fans and seemed like a lot of fun. She talked about her latest movie and the work she put into it and the people that she met during that time. She really comes across as the quiet girl next door.

The most harrowing part of the day was trying to get a taxi back from electronic city. Our mistake was not pre-booking one in the morning. For our sins we had to take an auto drive with Kannada Michael Schumacher cum angry Salman Khan. He just couldn’t tolerate anything in front of him and so would overtake from any side. And then he decided that these two boys on a bike were deliberately mocking him and started yelling at them which made them begin mocking him for real. in retaliation he started following them and whacking the guy on the back with stinging slaps on his back – all while driving at full speed and leaning his torso completely out of the vehicle. I think I might have exploded an artery but for his auto breaking down halfway home. Yes, there is a God.

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Bombay Stories – Saadat Hasan Manto

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

Saadat Hasan Manto was a short story and script writer as well as a novelist and a journalist. He is best known for his short stories, including the famous ‘Toba Tek Singh’. He spent many years in Bombay before he migrated to Lahore after partition, and most of the stories in this collection were written then lending them a patina of nostalgia.

The cover of this book showcases the photograph of a group of young women and little children standing in a darkened doorway looking out at the photographer with varying degrees of delight on their faces. And yet, it appears almost as if they are held back by an invisible barricade from stepping over the doorstep and out into the world. It has a bittersweet quality to it, which keeps becoming compounded as you begin to read the stories in this anthology.

Bombay stories is essentially a collection of stories about the lives of prostitutes in Bombay before partition, and most probably as they are even today. Each story deals with prostitutes, either as the main protagonists or as the objects of desire for his main protagonists. A majority of the stories were written by him after his migration to Lahore and as most of these stories are anecdotal they give the impression of being journal entries. The ones in which Manto himself does not appear gave me the impression of being about him nonetheless, which may not be true at all. All the characters in his stories are more or less settled in their ways of life, which happens to most people when life has beaten them down sufficiently. There is no struggle by his characters to better themselves or look for some utopia that exists only in their minds. All their actions are restricted to the spheres in which they move – so his prostitutes are not looking for a ‘way out’, his pimps are happy plying their trade, and his friends who talk high and long are human enough to feel no qualms about sleeping with women for money. At times it becomes a little overwhelming – this moving through the red-light districts of Bombay with Manto and the dramas of life that play out there and one wonders why he couldn’t just have written about the lives of school teachers or vegetable vendors. But, like a friend of mine pointed out, the life of a prostitute is already mired in a certain pathos by virtue of her trade, which in our puritanical society is considered to be the last resort for survival open to a woman and thus provides an easy canvas for an artist to create his works. It seems callous when one puts it that bluntly but it also has a ring of truth to it.

I had heard such praises about Manto’s writings from so many different people that I was really looking forward to reading his works. However, this collection was somewhat of a letdown after all that I had built him up to be. His most famous short stories are not included in this anthology and, like I said earlier, the stories here read like journal entries to me. His genius lies in the descriptions of the city and the people which are succinct and capture a complete picture in two or three sentences. His sense of humour that springs up here and there is innocent and honest. His relationship with his ‘capitalist-minded’ wife as portrayed in the stories seems one based on love and trust carefully tucked under the blanket of the usual nitty-gritty of matrimonial life. His political views and his secularism come to the fore again and again in his works. In today’s politically correct world, he would probably be considered a racist for his descriptions of people – but when reading his stories you realize immediately what he wants to convey when he mentions these cliches and you can’t really blame him. His cliches are in no way derogatory, they are just the way he perceives people belonging to a particular place, sect or religion, and since he is surrounded by so many cultures and communities in Bombay he uses them again and again to characterize them clearly in his mind. As I am sure most of us do to this day.

But if you are picking up Manto for the first time, I would suggest you look for collections containing his more famous works before this one. Bombay stories is in no way a bad or boring book, but it fails to convey the true genius of a man who was unique in his view of life, looking at it through naked eyes with not many embellishments but for those he decided to bestow on it in his role as a ‘short-story writer’.

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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.