Friday, December 04, 2015

Book Review: FLYPAPER

Title: Flypaper
Author: CK Vile
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 202










I found this book intriguing ever since I laid eyes on the disgustingly real image of the housefly. At close quarters, it tends to evoke a sense of disgust in me, as I’m sure it does in everyone. As Ogden Nash said, "God in his wisdom made the fly, and then forgot to tell us why.” Unless you are a spider, in which case you would naturally be pretty fond of the fly, what with it being your meal of choice.

The title was equally interesting. A flypaper is a sticky paper that proves to be the death of the fly when it lands upon its adhesive surface. You’d get the connection even more when you read the book. I don’t want to give it away here. It’s one of the most horrific themes in the book.

Nick Dawkins, a famous writer of horror books, is used to his fair share of crazed and demented fans. It is the reason why he escaped to his isolated cabin in the woods in a small town called Forest Down. 

Following a harrowing childhood, in which his mother, suffering from a condition known as Munchhausen Syndrome, repeatedly sought to poison him, Nick has serious trust issues. He only manages to live a normal life, because he has found the ability to put his horrors and nightmares into the stories he writes. Stories that command a crazy fan following and have made him a bestselling author.

After a long period of isolation and shunning social contact, Nick allows himself to be drawn on to a date with Danielle, a young artist, who is also an outsider in Forest Down. Like him, she too has had a bad childhood, and is scarred by her past. Like him, she too enjoys horror literature and the same interests in films, books etc.

The contact thrills him and Nick finds his writer’s block lifted. Suddenly it is as if the story is practically writing itself.
He likes Danielle and the feeling is mutual, or so Danielle tells him.

A day after their first date, Danielle initiates a second one. Nick invites her over to his place, and that is when things get nightmarish, as Danielle begins to show her true self. He becomes aware of the extent of her obsession and derangement. Warning signs burst in his head.

Not just Nick, even we as readers begin to feel an increasing snse of horror and disgust as we come to understand the depths of Danielle’s obsession and insanity.

I liked the author’s style of writing. It was quite unlike anything I’ve read in a long time. Real yet fast paced, guaranteed to send your thoughts into a tailspin, your pulse racing. While being unmistakably sympathetic to Nick, it still sometimes set itself at odds with him, as if it were inviting us to inspect the exhibit that was Nick.

One of the things that I liked was that this book was about a writer, and touched extensively upon the life of a writer, the process of writing, the life of isolation it often imposes, the feeling of lethargic inertia that comes upon a writer when inspiration fails, the demons that attack when the words on the page don’t do justice to those in the head, and the sweet sense of fulfillment when everything falls into place. The sponging off on life, the writing off real life experiences, all these are evident here. Some of the most incisive insights were reserved for the writing life. Inspiration was like that sometimes, a pouty toddler stamping its feet.


I loved the characterization. The isolation of the people of Forest Down, the old worldly charm of Bonnie and Chuck Littleberry, who run the local grocery store, are just as memorable in their own way as Nick and Danielle. I also like CorpseFlower, the web admin of Nick’s site. Even as she dabbles with the macabre, CorpseFlower still retains her sense of justice, which we see in the manner in which she dishes out retribution to those who break the line between right and wrong and deliberately err.


Vile also knowingly or unknowingly raises questions on the nature versus nurture debate. Both Nick and Danielle are a product of their upbringing and their parentage. Yet both react to their past in radically different ways. 

I was so impressed with this book, that at first I wanted to read the second in the series, Flypaper Opus, particularly because the blurb promised to outdo this one in every respect. 

Then I saw that that book has two flies on its cover (Incidentally, Books 3, 4 and 5 in the series show 3, 4 and 5 flies on the cover.), and I believed them. And so I changed my mind. 

There's only so much I can take.  

But do read this one if you can. Good stuff this!

















Thursday, December 03, 2015

Book Review: CHECKOUT GIRL

Title: Checkout Girl
Author: Aimee Alexander
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 17









At 17 pages, Checkout Girl is more of a short story than a book, but as long as GoodReads classifies it as a book, a book it is for me as well. After all, I signed up on their site to read 50 books in 2015, and now that we are in Week One of December, I am beginning to feel more than a little desperate.

I found the cover page of the book, with its soft twinkling lights, and the hint of a Christmas tree rather appealing.

The story is about an 83-year-old woman who dies suddenly, just outside a mall where she has gone shopping. She expects to have her whole life flash before her eyes, as is commonly believed, and is surprised to find herself given the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a single mother, the checkout girl who had shown her a kindness just moments before her death. The checkout girl who has now been fired from her job for her pains.

A snippet of a review on the cover promised me that the book would tug at my heartstrings. 
It didn't.
Maybe my heartstrings are too taut.

All the same, I found the book cute. Perhaps if it had been fleshed out a little bit more. Maybe if I had known a little more about the life of the sweet, old woman who died just as the story began, or even about Debbie, the checkout girl, it might have made a difference. 

At one time, the author compared Debbie to another girl who is a part-timer and who enjoys this job. The author writes, She and Debbie are the same age: nineteen. Yet they live as though a generation apart. Having a child can make the world a much more serious and grown-up place.


There was so much in that last line that could have benefited from elucidation. But the details didn't come.

Debbie's little daughter, Jessie, and her profanity spouting mother, Janice, could have been given more space to breathe so we could understand their presence in Debbie's life. On the other hand, the old woman, whose first person account this is, doesn't share much about her life either. We don't learn the details about why her son is in jail. We don't even know her name.

Eventually, the dead old woman does something nice for Debbie, and earns her wings. She is grateful for the opportunity to play an angel and help Debbie.


This story should have been thickened with some more detail and stretched to a mini-novella. The author has a pleasing style of writing, and I would certainly have liked to read more.




Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Book Review: HARRY HIPPO AND THE WISHING POOL

Title: Harry Hippo and the Wishing Pool
Author: Tara Star
Publisher: Princess Star Tara Publications
Pages: 25









The only reason why I picked this book was because the main character was a hippo. A hippo was among the few animals that my kids, La Niña and El Niño, learned to identify when they first started learning the names of animals. For the same reason, Gloria in the Madagascar films series was also one of their favourite characters.

So when I saw that this book was about a hippo, I knew they were bound to like it.

Harry Hippo is a hippo with huge self-esteem issues. He thinks he is too ugly and admires other animals for their physical attributes. A toucan offers to help him become as pretty as the other animals, and directs him to a magical watering hole which offers a swimmer one wish. Harry Hippo wishes to be pretty and his wish is granted. 

But it isn't always nice to have one's wishes come true, and Harry Hippo discovers that soon enough. How he comes to realise the importance of accepting and loving oneself is the crux of this story.

The book is peppered with photographs and cute illustrations of animals. The illustrations are a mix of simple line drawings and artistic renditions of what a lush, tropical forest in the Serengeti, in Tanzania, thickly populated with animals, might look like. 

The font and the point size alter on different pages of the book. I thought that some standardisation would have helped, not only in the use of the font and the point size but also in the pictures. Either photos, or simple drawings or artistic illustrations would have served much better, rather than a mix of all three.

Also, there is a factual error that I discovered when I looked up the meaning of toucan. Apparently it is a brightly coloured tropical American bird. This book transplants it into Africa.

Of course, this kind of nit-picking is what we adults do. My kids loved the story, from start to finish, and gushed over each of the images, imagining themselves in the centre of some of the most beautiful illustrations.

La Niña particularly took the lesson to heart. So well did she make it her own that when, some days later, she wanted to click a picture with me, I, notorious hater of my own photographs, refused, saying that I wasn't photogenic enough, and that my hair always looked bad etc.

That's when she looked me straight in the eye and asked, "Mamma, haven't you learned anything from Harry Hippo?"

Some lessons we all stand in need of.

Thank you, Harry Hippo. I hope La Niña and El Niño never forget what you taught them.






Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Book Review: THE SOUND OF FOOTSTEPS

Title: The Sound of Footsteps
Author: Diane Patterson
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services
Pages: 120










Described on the cover as a prequel to the Drusilla Thorne mysteries, this ghost story, not a paranormal tale by any means, reminded me of how twisted humans could get.


There isn’t much back story about Drusilla here. All we know is that she and her half sister, Stevie, are running away from something, forced to change identities and appearances and turn their backs on their old lives each time they are confronted by another life threatening situation.

They have done this very often before, but with this identity, that of Drusilla Thorne, whose first person account this is, the story suggests that it is the first of a series.

The sisters rent a small apartment in San Antonio, Texas. The rent is cheap because there is a ghost haunting the premises. The truth of the ghost is actually far more serious and scary and Drusilla gets to the bottom of it.  The mystery is resolved but the drama continues.

It is a short and quick read, but you don’t really get to know ether Drusilla or Stevie as characters, because Drusilla is so cagey. There is a hint of an interesting back story related to Stevie, but the whiff passes and the focus shifts again to the ghost.

The owner of the apartment is a woman, Hannah Burton, who lives with her 17-year-old daughter, Cissy, and 12-year-old son Dominic. Hannah is in the process of finalizing her divorce with Pete, a former army vet, a man with anger issues and a vicious temper who is not prepared to let go of his family.

Brandon Smith is the previous owner of the property who continues to visit the property by virtue of being the handyman and gardener. Brandon’s daughter, Patricia, had hanged herself in the very apartment which Drusilla and Stevie have rented, and it is her ghost that is supposed to be making noises and walking around.

Once the denouement starts, events get quickly out of hand, and before long, Drusilla and Stevie need to be on the run again, afraid of something, running away from the harm of the law, even when they have done nothing wrong.

I liked the character of Drusilla. She was frank and forthright and she drove the action onward. Unfortunately, you don’t get a good opportunity to get to know her. She gives us tantalizing hints of an exciting back story but the details don’t come out. All you know about her is that her actual name is Trudy and that Stevie is Svetlana but that is a detail that is mentioned in passing and never referred to again. We also learn that Drusilla is very protective of Stevie and that they’ve been on the run for ten years.

What does come out in this book is the Burton family dynamic, Pete’s insane jealousy, Hannah’s feelings of helplessness and Dominic’s insecurity.


I can’t say I was disappointed, but I wish this one had more going for it.



Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book Review: INDIAN MAIDENS BUST LOOSE

Title: Indian Maidens Bust Loose
Author: Vidya Samson
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 347









Indian Maidens Bust Loose by Vidya Samson was a fun, quirky and charming read, and I enjoyed it very much. Vidya’s style is cute and funny, sometimes quietly, so you find yourself chuckling, at other times outrightly so you find yourself laughing out loud.

Vidya’s humour is contagious and before long, you find yourself a fly on the wall of the Desai household, the unseen guest at their board, where much of the fun takes place.


The story concerns the four-member Desai family, Papa Rasik, Ma Meena and daughters Nisha and Vinita, who live in the home of Meena’s mother, Naani. Meena’s father has died, and it is the death of this stern patriarch that causes Damini, the other daughter who ran off with her American musician-lover to the US, to consider a visit home to India after 25 years of being away.

The impending arrival of Damini, Meena’s sister, with her daughters, Lauren and Amber throws the Desai family into turmoil, providing the girls a respite from the steady stream of ineligible and loser suitors, and the faintly discouraging and dysfunctional family. Papa and Ma both rant against the lack of Western values.

The stage is set for a confrontation.

The adventures pile on thick and fast from the time the Americans land at Ahmedabad airport. The trusted Maruti 800 adds to the fun, pitting the family against a crazy mob. These events are followed by the theft of Damini’s bag at a local expo, followed by the subsequent nabbing of the thief, power outages, interminable suitor visits, much to the consternation of Nisha and Vinita, a peaceful protest, outside the municipal authority to demand water, which ends up in the four cousins being thrown into jail, not to forget the rescue of an urchin at a garbage dump, an elopement from a marriage pandal, and a cow adopted by Papa as a mascot that would bring wealth to the family. 

The book has all the ingredients that might be completely easy stewing in a Bollywood potboiler, sewn together by Vidya’s humour and charming writing.

First person narrator Nisha Desai makes flippant and irreverent remarks that make you think. Dinner had the feel of a condemned man’s last meal.


About her father’s overeagerness to get her and her sister married , she says, Apparently he resented the food we ate.


What I had long ago taken for granted, what had become all but invisible to me, now loomed large and embarrassing. This refers to the mandatory judgment of India by Western eyes.


There are antagonists galore. There is the BSR, short for Bharati Sanskruti ke Rakshak, modeled on a real life organization. Fictional, its antics are scarily real. The name loosely translates to Protectors of Indian Culture, and you know how dangerous that can get. Unlimited power in the hands of the rabid.

There is Gita, whose gossip can destroy reputations and homes.

There is Papa, who disapproves of almost everything that his daughters do, and Ma, who does not have a loving and affectionate relationship with her daughters.

And then there are the other characters, who drive this book on.

They include Damini, and her daughters, Lauren and Amber. These three women are the core of the book, and the daughters especially push the action forward with their forthright attitudes and their outspokenness. Their behaviour is refreshing in contrast with the Desai girls, who are inhibited by circumstances and family compulsions.

The lines that the characters speak are all funny. An additional element of humour is brought on by the strange English spoken by Papa, Ma and Naani. But generally between Damini with her new-age science, Naani and her proverbs, Papa’s BSR leanings and rabid philosophy, the, there is plenty of food for amusement. Some of the most laugh-out-loud moments are brought on by the cousins’ introduction to the Indian toilet.

The chapter names are quirky and colourful, as are the cast of characters. Only Nisha comes across as insipid in comparison with the others. She was a foil to the others, whose actions were the plot of the story.

Such a pity, since we know she is far from boring. Her thoughts are so interesting, but that didn’t stop me from feeling disappointed in her as a character.

Nisha wants to work, preferably in the US, but her dad won’t let her. Her reasons for wanting to live in the US are unconvincing.

She tries to ingratiate herself with her aunt and cousins, in the hope that they will support her American Dream, when her Papa clearly won’t. This was another thing that appeared selfish. If her father wouldn’t let her work in a TV channel in Ahmedabad, she could have considered moving to another city. 

Harbouring dreams of living and working in the US seemed too far-fetched, and the means she adopted to achieve her dreams, cosying up to her cousins when she is not being shortlisted by a rich American suitor, aren’t at all the sort to endear her to us.

Nisha also has a penchant for reading romances, and towards the end of the novel she takes to likening real situations to the plots of the novels she reads. Had this happened throughout the book, it would have been more consistent. As it is, it only shows up towards the end, making it appear to be a hastily contrived device.

Even the beginning of her tentative relationship with Jay, the neighbour’s nephew, seems hastily added on, to give her a happy ending. In contrast, I admired Vinita for taking risks to ensure that her marriage with Ashok became a reality.

The end of the book seemed totally forced, and I found my interest flagging as a result. I wished the Americans didn’t have to return. They kept this book simmering hot, and it was fun while they were around.

Much as the ingredients seem like they belong to a chick-lit novel, and the title also gives that impression, I would hesitate to call this chick-lit. There is so much more to this book.

Vidya effectively manages to raise a number of serious issues through her funny book and does complete justice to them too. These include the differences between the East and the West, the perennial debate about the lack of moral values, the relationships between sisters across generations, superstition as a way of life, and the lack of basic rights such as water, among other things.

If only the narrator had been a stronger character, I’d cheer even more for this book.


Vidya Samson, take a bow!











Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Good Conductor

We didn’t know his real name, and it didn’t occur to us to ask.

Taklu Conductor was the highly uncomplimentary name that one of the girls gave him. And it stuck. Before long, we were all calling him that. It was a name inspired by his bald pate, taklu being the streetside Bambaiya Hindi word for bald. As smooth as a baby’s bottom his head was, we told ourselves giggling.

He was the conductor on the school bus that took us from home to school and back. Other conductors were indistinguishable, their buses known by a landmark on their routes. Ours proudly went by the name of Taklu Conductor’s bus.

And rightly so, for Taklu Conductor was miles of streets ahead of the others who did the same job.

As a conductor, his duties weren’t all that hard. Maintain law and order in the bus, and assist the driver when he was reversing the bus to ensure that no one was hurt as the bus reversed. But it was the dedication and delight with which he performed these simple tasks that won him hearts.

He took charge of us, ensuring that no one put their hands out through the bars of the window. Fights over who got how much window space, and who had the window seat and who had to make do with the aisle seat didn’t last long either when Taklu Conductor was the mediator. On his watch, girls learned to share window space. Those who sought to push the window panes forward or backward learned soon enough that it didn’t please Taklu Conductor.

Woe betide anybody that dared to tease or belittle any of us girls. Taklu Conductor would be Fury unleashed, an angry father, no less.

With him on board, boring rides on the city streets were transformed as Taklu Conductor regaled us with interesting anecdotes about things that had happened in his village. We marvelled at the different kinds of adventures he had had, the wondrous events that had befallen him. At other times, he led us in singing the latest Bollywood melodies and the oldies with equal felicity, transforming the bus into a great Picnic-on-wheels.

Once an unexpected digging on the roads led the driver to take an unscheduled detour and route to drop us off at our stops. Taklu Conductor fretted non-stop, suggesting alternative routes that would get us home at the earliest. This was pre-cellphone era.

A girl once vomited inside the bus, an action that provoked the wrath of the driver and frightened the girl even more. Taklu Conductor cheerfully offered to clean up the mess, provided the driver shut up and stopped upsetting the girl.

For our sake, he stored in the bus cabin a fully stocked first aid kit, which came in handy, whenever somebody was hurt or whenever somebody attempted acrobatics in the bus.

Many a school girl afraid of her teacher and keen to play hooky changed her mind about bunking school at the thought of missing Taklu Conductor. The girl who did so anyway received a stern lecture on the significance of the education she was receiving, something he never had growing up.

But he was learning. He had a copy of the English primer, probably something his little daughter, who also studied in our school, had outgrown. Taklu Conductor would try to teach himself to read and write with it, with us, his volunteer-teachers, egging him on.

It wasn’t for nothing that we were the envy of our other school mates.

Today when I see my children off at the school bus stop, I am not entirely at ease regarding their safety and I quell my anxious fears through prayer. Back then, none of the parents of the girls on Taklu Conductor’s bus had the slightest doubts or fears about their children’s safety. Taklu Conductor inspired that kind of confidence.

He was a Mother Hen on whose watch nothing untoward could ever befall his wards. A simple man, who had the undisputed affection of all the girls who took his bus.

When I came to know about Tata Motors’ contest, inviting bloggers to talk about a person who has touched their lives, a simple, ordinary person who is #madeofgreat and who touched others with his simplicity and goodness, I was reminded once again of Taklu Conductor.


Today’s school children, and parents too, need more Taklu Conductors on their buses, and in their lives.




If you were touched by my account of Taklu Conductor, and wish to leave a comment, the organisers of this contest would like you to answer a simple question: 

What do you think of Tata Motors' association with Lionel Messi?

The best comment can win you an Amazon voucher worth Rs 750.

So go on, answer the question, and don't forget to say something nice about Taklu Conductor while you're at it. Wherever he is, the Good Conductor has certainly earned every bit of praise he can get.






Monday, November 09, 2015

Book Review: BELLMAN & BLACK

Title: Bellman & Black
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Pages: 337








There is an air of foreboding all around Bellman and Black, but it is not enough to justify calling it a ghost story.
There is far too much of the menace that is sought to be attached to the rooks.

The omniscient first person narrator pulls us into the story from the very first line. He/she offers us bite-sized pieces of philosophy in the manner of the writers of old. It is a technique which serves to establish the period which is somewhere in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. 

It was a time when professions long forgotten in time, such as the corderwainers were important, and a spinster did not have the pejorative connotation it suffers today.

As a 10-year-old boy, William Bellman aims his catapult at a rook and, in an act of childish cruelty, kills it. With the killing of the rook, we get a sense of something having altered irrevocably for him, thought its impact does not show itself, until much later.

William’s uncle, Paul, offers him the opportunity to work at the family Bellman cloth spinning mill, and William joins him with gusto, discovering within himself a talent for doing business and managing people. He grows in stature at the mill; later, he marries and has children and his life is full of joy.

When his mother dies, and then his uncle too, he plods on, enabling the mill to grow and make greater profits. Years later, an epidemic claims the lives of his wife and three children. Dora, his firstborn child, too falls prey to the epidemic.

At each of these funerals, William sees an unfamiliar man, dressed in black. This man makes William a very strange offer, which William accepts and Bellman and Black, a mourning emporium, comes into being.

William puts into Bellman and Black the same energy that he had once put into the running of the mill. The opening of the store galvanises many aspects of the local industry.

I found the chapter in which William is introduced to the workings of the mill particularly interesting. Bear in mind that this is a time when the spinning jenny has transformed industry.

The writing is compelling and forceful and I enjoyed it. Particularly, when the subject was the rooks, the writing took on a deeper, more poetic hue. These sections started off with an ampersand at the top. While they offered a beautiful and eloquent insight into the habits of the rooks, culminating in a grammar lesson on the collective nouns for them, there didn’t seem to be much point to this section of the story.

You can’t help but be impressed by the quantum of detail that Diane has put into the telling of her story. As also by the words she has used to depict every mood, experience and situation. Always the right word. 

You get the feeling that this author has made the language her own, and searched always for the right word, and not rested until it is found, never settling for second-best to express anything.

This detail is seen in the description of the mill, and of the construction of the mourning emporium, which is done with respect to the period.

The characterization and the plot show the change in William from the 10-year-old boy who killed a rook to the 50-year-old man of business who lets his obsessions get the better of him. Gradually, he becomes a hardened man, looking to business to satisfy all his emotional needs.

It is at this point that the novel suddenly gets a little darker and more than a little worrisome, but not enough to be called a ghost story. In fact, for the greater part of the novel, we don’t even see the supposed spectre, Mr Black, and when we do, it is always through William’s impressions, and we’re never sure if Mr Black is real.


Left to itself, I liked the book, but the weight of expectations raised by the publishers, the weight of being called A Ghost Story, that’s something that this book doesn’t quite recover from. And just for that reason, all the effort is undone. And the end comes across as a huge disappointment.

Not that I regret reading it. The writing was worth it.



 (I read a Kindle version of this book on NetGalley.)






Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book Review: FIND VIRGIL

Title: Find Virgil
Author: Frank Freudberg
Publisher: Inside Job Media
Pages: 356









The author seeks to imbue the story with an aura of realism by setting the period during which the events of the book began – 1995, the same year in which OJ Simpson was convicted, Forrest Gump won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Clinton was President.

Amid these real events is the fictional occurrence of journalist Martin Muntor being diagnosed with lung cancer. The illness comes as a shock to him because Muntor has never abused his body in any way. He has always treated it like a temple, eating right, keeping fit, working hard, going to church, and looking after his family. Yet in his illness, he is unemployed and alone, with just one year of life left in him.

The realization that passive smoking has driven him to this fills him with a rage against tobacco companies and smokers. Muntor decides to exact a unique form of revenge where he takes with him those who actually deserve to die.

Despite the pain he suffers, he takes the trouble to put together 6 large cardboard boxes with 700 Fedex envelopes inside. Each envelope contains a pack of 10 cigarettes, made up of a toxic mixture that ensures death within seconds of the first smoke. The wages of sin are death, Muntor believes, and he is ready to dole out that death himself.

Muntor fancies himself to be Christ, unbroken yet forced to atone for the sins of the world. Yet he is also crazy with a distorted, aggravated view of himself, as seen in the self-documentary he chooses to film to leave his story behind for posterity.

In W Nicholas Pratt, the President and and COO of Old Carolina Tobacco Inc, the world’s fourth largest cigarette company, Muntor has a formidable enemy. Pratt is a ruthless man who thinks nothing of increasing the nicotine content in cigarettes to get smokers addicted. Pratt ropes in Tom Rhoads, an ex-cop, currently a private eye, to find out the identity of the man who is wreaking vengeance on the tobacco industry. 

Meanwhile, the police, already intrigued by the disappearance of another accused in the company, make their own attempts to figure out the identity of the vigilante, who has nicknamed himself Virgil.

In between there are a host of characters, each with his or her own axe to grind. Some of them unnecessarily steal the spotlight from the main characters and that is annoying.

In the tradition of troubled heroes, Rhoads has his own drama raging on in his personal life, with his brother’s inability to stay sober, and that is what makes him more willing to accept Pratt’s offer, even though he and Pratt distrust each other.

Meanwhile, Muntor intensifies his terrorising activity against the tobacco industry. He claims that he will not stop until he has reminded the world about the evil of smoking. He will give up only if the cigarette companies donate $1.5 billion to research.

Before long, the police and the FBI, Pratt, Rhoads and Muntor find themselves in a race to outwit each other, as they attempt to bring down Virgil.

The name, Virgil, that Muntor assumes for himself, in his conversations with the police, and with Rhoads, who he insists on speaking to, comes from the Roman poet Virgil, who was also a character in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I found this element particularly appealing. I love literary references, and I loved the fact that Freudberg got this part right.

But there were things that didn't work. There is the occasional inconsistency in tenses and a slight disregard for grammatical perfection. Often the author eschews the use of pronouns, and repeats proper nouns in every sentence until the usage begins to grate on our sensibilities.

Another inconsistency is that while Muntor sends out a letter to 700 smokers in the name of Matthew Doran, some chapters later, we have Pratt stating that it is Tom’s name on the letter.

This book could have gained so much from the services of a good editor. There are so many errors that could have been checked. For instance, in one chapter, Dr Trice is said to have hurried on her short legs to the restaurant. Why the derogatory reference to short legs?


Some of the chapters were far too short to be considered chapters. Chapter 56, for example, is just 42 words long.It didn’t feel good to have my attention uprooted and shifted to a different character just after a few paragraphs. 

While the plot piques our interest, the writing is far from compelling. There are only a few notable exceptions when the writing rises above the general. Of these I can recall, The corpses of things he had begun and later abandoned cluttered his life the way trash blows down dead-end alleys and stays there.


But I overlooked all that in favour of the pace of this thriller, and how Freudberg kept me engaged with the desire to know what happens next.

The character of Tom Rhoads did not come out to be quite the hero that Freudberg portrayed him as. But Muntor was an unexpected anti-hero. I found myself rooting for him, in spite of the crazy narcissistic self-documentary filming. After all, his intentions were good, even if the means he used weren't. 

The one thing I could not overlook, make that -- would not overlook, was the on-off romance between Tom and Mary Dallaness, an employee of Old Carolina. Mary was one of the most insipid women I’ve ever met in a book, and it was hard to believe that she had a hold on the romantic affections of a man like Tom, who was every bit her polar opposite. Also, her refusal to believe anything negative about the tobacco industry, insisting that it created jobs for ordinary people, irritated me so much, I longed to smack her hard across the face.


All in all, there was a lot of promise in this book, which could have been brought out in the hands of a good editor. The best feature of the book is that it confronts us with facts that I, as a non-smoker, felt terrified by. If these facts can terrify smokers into giving up smoking by bringing them face to face with some of the most insidious secrets of the tobacco industry and the nefarious tactics adopted by them to keep smokers hooked, it will be worth the effort.

That alone deserves a keen reading.




Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Book Review: BRADSTREET GATE

Title: Bradstreet Gate
Author: Robin Kirman
Publisher: Crown
Pages:  320









Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman follows the lives of three friends, Alice, Charlie and Georgia, in Harvard.

Charlie, Alice and Georgia are all troubled in their own ways. Georgia, whose artist father and teacher mother have separated, has had her nude photos shot and displayed by her father. Alice, daughter of Serbian immigrants, watches as her father adopts the American Dream with gusto while her mother clings to the Serbia that she has lost. Charlie, second son of his father, is increasingly disillusioned with his father, who distances himself from him and takes visible pride in his older, more macho son.

While in college, Georgia is enamoured with Rufus Storrow, a very popular and much admired professor, and she begins an affair with him. It is a relationship fraught with peril, for even though Georgia is not his student, the affair could still cost him his job and ruin him. 

Before long, Georgia is disillusioned with Storrow and she breaks up the affair, even as he uses his physical might to try to bully her into staying. Storrow’s insensitivity regarding the subject he teaches, Law and the Colonials, makes him more detractors than admirers. His fiercest detractor is Julie Patel, daughter of Indian immigrants.

When Alice, a budding writer, discovers the affair, she writes an article for the college magazine, exposing everything, sparing no details and widening the gap between herself and Georgia. The affair changes the dynamics of their friendship too. The news of the affair upsets Charlie, who has long adored Georgia, but has never been taken for anything more than a friend.

For Storrow, it is a fall from grace that unravels him. While he is not implicated of the murder, for lack of evidence, he isn’t completely exonerated either.

After college ends, and they get out into the real world, frustrations continue to dog them. Ten years later, not one of them is truly happy.

Charlie is the only one to have a measure of professional success, but even he finds it disillusioning.

It is in Mumbai where Georgia goes in pursuit of a volunteering job that she meets Storrow again, five years later. The descriptions of Mumbai are true to the impressions of a first-time visitor from the West, the chaos of sound, the smells and the stench, and the madness that they see, all perfectly regulated by some invisible means. 

But this part of the story serves no real purpose. Having taken Georgia to India and leaving her frustrated there when her passport is stolen and it turns out the volunteering job is fake, Robin does not bother to tell us about how she gets out of India and heads to Kenya.


Even though it seems as if the murder might take centre stage, the book isn’t about the murder at all. The mystery of who killed Julie is not resolved, not even 10 years later, when the class prepares to meet for her 10 year memorial service.

Robin reveals the characters in the best way possible, dropping stray hints here and there that say more about each character than whole paragraphs could have. That Nat Krauss, the Harvard reporter, brings his muddy feet into somebody’s house tells us that he is sloppy and careless of others’ feelings. Georgia’s own careless attire tells us about how her priorities have changed.


The Prologue is set in the present and Chapter 1 takes us back to the past 10 years ago into Georgia’s life. Thereafter, each chapter, almost biographical, takes us into the first person accounts of each of the friends, starting from their birth, childhood and early family life, in an attempt to help us understand their unique personalities and their motivations. These details, it is hoped, will help us understand their reasons for coming to Harvard.

Robin takes us into the lives of the three friends. She forces us inside the minds of the characters, giving us a deeper understanding of the events of their lives. The secrecies, the jealousy, the loss of love, the frustrations, and amid them all, the murder.

Georgia, Alice and Charlie are friends, but it is a friendship marked by needs and wants. Only Charlie’s friendship seemed genuine, and for much of the time, he didn’t seem to really care for Alice.

Robin’s characterization skills make the characters appear all too real, not stylized and fit to be within the pages of a book. Of the three, I liked Alice the least. She struck me as hollow, empty and yet she had her own motivations, strong ones, that led her to act the way she did.

The ending, though far from abrupt (it does, after all, offer closure to the characters), still gives us a sense of having faded off into nothing. The elaborate explanation of Storrow’s past shed no further light on the mystery and enigma of the man who started out as such a paragon of perfection and lost the plot along the way.

The plot is non-linear, and the narrator slips into the past and present now and again. It is a device which keeps the stories of all the three characters real, but doesn’t allow us to identify completely with any one of them.

I tried to like this book, but it didn’t really stay with me.


"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."








Thursday, October 08, 2015

Book Review: YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE

Title: You are my sunshine
Author: Roberta Kagan
Publisher: Self published
Pages: 403










You are my Sunshine, Book II in the All My Love, Detrick series, takes off from the story of Helga, and the little girl, named Katja, that she gave birth to. But baby Katja is only a minor character in this story. She only serves as a peg upon which Roberta Kagan has hung this book.

The protagonists of this book are Manfred Blau, a German Nazi, and Zofia Weiss, a Polish Jew, whose lives intersect for a while.

The plot follows the life of Manfred Blau, a weak and puny German boy with low self-esteem who joins the Nazi party in an effort to improve his standing and his position. The move helps and Manfred finds himself rising in the estimation of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda.

His renewed confidence gives him the courage to woo and win Christa Henkener, a beautiful and rich classmate of his from school, who he would otherwise never have been able to befriend. Deeply in love, Manfred and Christa marry, even as he begins to move up in the Nazi hierarchy.

Meanwhile, Christa’s father, surgeon Dr Thomas Henkener, hates the Nazis and goes out of his way to help his Jewish doctor colleagues. He is caught and named a traitor. As punishment, Manfred is ordered to shoot his father-in-law. 

But the Nazi Party does not forgive easily. Manfred and his family, including baby Katja who they have adopted, move to Treblinka where Manfred is put in charge of the concentration camp there.

There Manfred discovers the cruel side of his personality as he revels in killing and sadistically beating and torturing the Jews under his control. Treblinka is also where he meets the other protagonist of this work, Zofia Weiss, who has had a baby girl, Eidel, out of wedlock.

Christa never recovers from the trauma of seeing her husband shoot her father, and she takes to her bed. Manfred brings Zofia into his home as a house-servant. There she is subject to sexual slavery, apart from looking after the household needs and little Katja.

A rebellion in the camp causes the Nazis to shut down Treblinka. Christa pleads for Zofia’s life and she is allowed to run for her life. In the woods, Zofia meets Isaac and Shlomie, and so begins a tender love story between Zofia and Isaac. It is also a time when they must avoid being captured by the Germans.

The book brings out the sense of loss, as the survivors lose loved ones, their homes and belongings. Many lose their faith, their minds. There seems to be nothing to live for.

Kagan expresses well the desolation that comes upon the Jews as they are forced into overcrowded trains, with only standing space, trains choked with the stench of vomit, urine and feces, and also of death. For it is not until the train reaches the concentration camp that they will be allowed off the train.

This book sees an improvement on the chapter front – only 89, but the tendency to have ultra-small 200-word chapters and the errors in proofreading and spelling persist. Sentences in which characters are thinking also show some seriously awkward construction. This book, like the first in the series, needed a good editor to bring out the best in it.

There is a continuity issue too. The Prologue informs us that Katja was born in 1939, but in 1947, she is still shown to be a small child.

The cover image, presumably baby Katja, is misleading; the book isn't about the child at all.

The ending was the most annoying, and felt like a real cheap trick to get the reader enthused about reading the third book in the series.

Earlier on, we read about Isaac being captured by four German soldiers just before the war ends. Zofia never finds him again.

However, just as she and Katja are set to board the ship Exodus, setting out on its maiden trip to the nation of Israel, someone calls out to Zofia by name.

It’s obviously someone significant, seeing who “her (Zofia’s) breath caught and her lungs tightened,” but we receive no hints as to the identity of this mysterious person. Kagan gyps us by not telling us who the person is, not even whether that person is a male or a female, forget about whether it was Isaac.


I was certainly hoping Zofia would bump into him again (I can’t help it. I have a thing for happy endings.)


We will have to read Part III of the series, The Promised Land, to figure that out.




                             



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