Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Goodbye, 2014

How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness, how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?
- Dr Seuss

With two children whose combined ages still add up to a single digit, I do a lot of reading of children’s books. And Dr Seuss, with his penchant for rhyming, ranks up there among our favourites. And so it is only fitting that I should start this post with a quote from him.

For it’s that time of the year.

December has always been my favourite month, for as long as I can remember. A huge part of that has to do with it being Christmas season, and how it has always been synonymous for hope and faith and for believing again. Ever since I was a little girl, I just felt that no matter what had gone wrong that year, it was going to be set right in the most spectacular manner possible.

And that was the other thing about December. It brought with it the promise of newness, the opportunity to wipe out the disappointments of the year that was whizzing by, and to dream, build and hope again. To believe that we have been granted a clean slate, some coloured chalk and a chance to re-write our lives.

Are we going to grab that chance to finally set things right? Or is it easier to lull ourselves into believing the lie that nothing ever changes and that resolutions are meant to be broken?

I hope you and I both have the courage to start something new in the coming year.

And while we are still here, on this side of 2014, I invite you to make some goals for yourself.

Goals are magic. They are paths that could lead us down completely new directions. 

If only we let them.

So go ahead and make some goals. One, two, or twenty. It doesn’t matter how many. Of course, “15 goals for 2015” does have a nice ring to it.

Write them down on a sheet of paper, and put them up where you can see them every day.
On your soft board.
Or your mirror.

Maybe 2015 is the year when you will finally get over your fear of the deep and learn how to swim.
Or learn a new language.

Or maybe you will overcome your phobia of heights and climb your first mountain.

Maybe you will make the first move towards reconciling with that estranged loved one that you haven’t spoken to in a long time.

Or maybe you will put pen to paper, one word after another, and finally write the untold story that is inside you. 

The first of many you know you were meant to.

Whatever it is, no matter how unconquerable it may seem at this point, I hope you will take that first step. As the greats say, one year from now, you’ll be glad you did.

Here’s wishing you a truly fulfilled 2015.

I hope to see you more often in the coming year. I hope you'll drop by.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Title: Bittersweet
Author: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Pages: 385

The cover page, with its expanse of a lake and the house in the distance, displays a steely calm that the events unfolding in the book belie. On the surface, life at Winloch is remarkably serene and beautiful, and yet there are undercurrents of bitterness that threaten to rip the calmness apart and expose the ugliness within.

First person narrator Mabel Dagmar is fat, short and hails from the wrong side of the tracks. Her roommate at the prestigious East Coast college to which she has a scholarship is Genevra (Ev) Kathleen Winslow, born to money, fame and sophistication and bred for a life of luxury and rehab clinics.

Mabel doesn’t think that Ev even registers her name, and yet gradually, she becomes Ev’s friend, at least that’s what she assumes. We readers are never really sure. Ev’s attitude towards her alternates between verbal abuse and patronization, but Mabel, lonely and bent under the weight of something that happened six years ago when she was 12, grabs at Ev’s feeble acknowledgement of her and assumes that it is friendship.

When Ev invites her to Winloch, her family’s summer estate, Mabel jumps at the opportunity. At Winloch, she tries to ingratiate herself into the good books of Ev’s family members. She is even willing to clean up Ev’s dilapidated and weatherworn cottage, Bittersweet. It is evident that Ev has brought Mabel along only to help her get the house cleaned. But for Mabel, it is a personal project as she looks upon Winloch as her own.

Meanwhile, Ev’s aunt, Indo, gives out family gossip and befriends Mabel, and the youngster learns a lot by shutting her mouth so the rich folk forget she is around or listening. When Indo asks her to find something untoward in the family archives in return for an opportunity to inherit her cottage after her death, Mabel, anxious to be a part of Winloch, immerses herself in the search. 

She finds a willing partner in Galway, Ev’s single, older brother. Rifling through the archive, she finds the diary of Katie Spiegel, Ev’s German-born paternal grandmother, which is almost ingenious in its deceptiveness. The diary is written in cryptic language, forcing Mabel to snoop further to solve its mystery. But is Galway truly an ally, willing to expose the wrongdoing of the family or will he sell out? And will exposing the family’s hideous secrets bring about her expulsion from Paradise?

The story begins in February at the college, then moves to June, July and August at Winloch and then to June the following year, the last an epilogue to the novel.

As a character, Mabel is shockingly different. The first shocker is when she unabashedly pleasures herself in Ev’s cottage in full view of open windows, her excitement heightened by the element of risk. And that is how she first meets Galway, making this the most unconventional meeting between two lovers of the opposite sex, in literary fiction.

From the beginning, Mabel comes across as needy, clingy, even slightly obsessed with Ev. Her relationship with her parents is not explained, cloaking their domestic life in mystery.

An invitation marks the beginning of something,” the author says, but here Mabel is destined to be forever on the outside, looking in, even as she longs to belong to this beautiful world.

There was altogether too much description, but I liked it, maybe because it was all so new to me, and it helped to establish the Vermont setting, something I was unfamiliar with. Even so, a greater part of this rather long novel is consumed by this relentless need to establish the setting, to indicate the idyllic nature of the haven that is Winloch. Day after day of picnicking seems to be the agenda for the Winslows, and the foreboding takes way too long to justify itself.

The novels that Mabel reads tell us a lot about the kind of person she is. In college, her idea of socializing is reading Jane Eyre, at its heart the story of a friendless governess who made good.

Then on her vacation to Winloch, she takes along Paradise Lost, required reading for the course she will take and emblematic of the big fight between Good and Evil that will soon play out at Winloch. She never goes beyond a few pages of the epic, throughout her summer at Winloch.

The chapter names are simple, to-the-point yet revelatory. They offer a good foil to the symbolism that is rife through the book. Winslow is an Eden, untouched, unspoiled. Galway and Mabel are almost like Adam and Eve; their snooping almost gets them thrown out. Strains of Paradise Lost, once again it is knowledge of the forbidden that takes away innocence here. 

True to its name, Bittersweet was exactly that for me, in parts bitter and sweet.

The bitterness arose from the fact that halfway through the book, I had no idea what was so hateful about Mabel’s family, why she invested so heavily in the Winslows when they were really no better. Was it the wealth that held sway?

We receive bits and pieces of information, a hint of domestic violence against her mother by her father, an unspeakable fate for her brother.

But the Winslow family also has its own secrets and almost everyone is hiding something.

The mystery element of the story takes much too long to be evoked and even longer to be resolved. Until then, the mystery bolts on all the doors are an irritant; they annoy one rather than whet the appetite.

It is also hard to get really involved in a book in which the main character is so unlikeable. Sometimes Mabel seems downright cruel, and I found it hard to sympathise with her because of her selfishness. It is hard to see the world through the eyes of a narrator who is as deceptive, in her own way, as Katie was in her journal.

This one was good while it lasted.

    Blogging for Books provided this book to me for free in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: QUEEN OF ICE

Title: Queen of Ice
Author: Devika Rangachari
Publisher: Duckbill Books
Pages: 184

The cover illustration by Tejashree Ingawle is the first thing that catches your eye. The sinuously poised plait of hair adorned with flowers resting on the red-robed person of Didda, set against the silver-blue backdrop of Kashmir’s snowy winter. The final image that reels you in is that of the faceless Didda, seemingly emotionless in her hunger to rule.

Didda is the princess of Lohara, beautiful, intelligent and lame. Allowed to live because an astrologer predicted that she was destined for greatness, the prediction does nothing to endear her to her father who despises her, and fuels her desire to prove herself. Her childhood is bleak indeed, and Valga, a girl she hires to carry her around when she is too tired to walk, and Naravahana, a boy of her own age hired to be a stable hand, are the only friends she has.

When DIdda is married off at age 16 to Kshemagupta, the once-married dissolute ruler of Kashmir, she becomes aware of the factions and seething ambitions that riddle the court. She must hold her own against these, if she is to survive. Yet Didda wants to do more than survive. In her heart, she longs to play a more vibrant role in the history and destiny of her new home.

When her husband dies of a mysterious disease, Didda, as the mother of child-king Abhimanyu, becomes regent, a position she holds through the deaths of her son, and her three grandsons, until she appropriates the title of king for herself.

Set in 10th century Kashmir, each chapter of this story contains the alternating first person point-of-view accounts of Didda and Valga, each account taking the story inexorably forward, rather than merely examining the same event through different perspectives. 

Didda’s attitude is undoubtedly regal, believing she is beholden to no one and conscious of fierce ambition and an unquenchable desire to achieve something bigger than the feeble role that fate and the rigid traditions of the time seek to bind her in. Valga’s account is that of the outsider, a friend of the queen, and yet one who is aware of her lowly station in life, a mere porter-woman hired to carry the queen wherever she wishes to go.

This physical proximity enables Valga to see Didda from up close, to be a witness to her every mood. I found myself warming to Valga’s telling more, looking at the external viewpoint as more authentic and truthful than Didda’s own telling. There is more show, less tell in Valga’s account than in Didda’s.

Devika Rangachari has done a great service to Indian literature and history by bringing a character like Didda to the limelight. A character that has not received her due from historians.

As a character, Didda is not without her flaws. Her ego is too strong, and the gifts she bestows upon her friends are not so much expressions of friendship as charitable doles to the less fortunate. But the loyalties are there, even if they are not always apparent, even if they are second to her own sense of self. 

Above all, Didda rises out from the tale on account of her hunger to rule, a hunger for which she is willing to stoop to commit acts which she never admits to, but which Valga hints at. And yet, in that place and time, who is to say that she was wrong to commit acts that a man might have got away with impunity?

Because the writing is in first person, Devika’s own voice does not show through. She refrains from passing judgement on Didda, leaving us to decide for ourselves whether we want to see her as a heroine or as a flawed, egoistic person.

Devika also deserves to be commended for bringing history alive in such a vibrant manner. Relying upon the body of research that she has built up for her PhD, this young author has used the few facts she had and weaved in them fantastic elements of fiction to re-create a time at a turbulent period in history, when boundaries between kingdoms were as strong as those enforcing them, and peace was fraught with tension.
In such a time, we come to know of Didda who gives to her people the gift of good governance and progress, and the knowledge that, in her, they have a friend who cares.

The writing is mostly in the present tense, except in one instance in the first few pages when past tense seems to have sneaked past the vigilant eyes of the editors. The use of the present tense helps to make us a part of the telling of the tale, as if we were the confidantes of both these strong woman.

If there is anything that I must find fault with, it is that the story moves on too fast. There is so much of detail that would have helped the story further. Didda’s conflicts with her cousin, after she becomes queen; the protest on the part of the Brahmins outside the kingdom (they are all bought off); the intrigues at court; the slow deaths of those that stand in her way, all these could have benefited from greater fleshing out. Also, more direct speech and witnessing events in real time could have helped us, as readers, to get more involved. But these are minor issues.

Don't let them stop you from reading this book to see a slice of history come alive.

I received a copy of Queen of Ice for this review.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Let's all become Akshaya Patras for our children

None of us wore watches to school, but that was alright. We didn’t need a timepiece to let us know that it was recess time. The loud rumbling of our stomachs and our increasing inability to focus on what was happening inside the classroom was enough.

Soon the tring-tring-tring of the school bell would sound over the clamour of the voices of a thousand schoolgirls and it would be time to dig into our little plastic and steel tiffin boxes and savour the joys they contained.

Most of us had been sent to school with a full breakfast. And the recess was only a comma in what would end in a hot home-cooked meal when school closed and we got home. Most moms were stay-at-home in those days.

I cannot even begin to imagine the plight of children, millions of them, who go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, then go to school hungry, their minds unable to hear the voices of their teachers over the din raised by their empty bellies.

If at all they go to school.

In between they might nibble on something utterly devoid of nutrition that does nothing to appease the hunger pangs.

What is their motivation for staying in school?

More importantly, what is their parents’ motivation for sending them to school? Their poor parents are more likely to pull them out of school, and utilise them as two more hands to work, rather than one more mouth to feed.

The promise of a meal at school is the key to keeping a child at school while providing for their growth and nourishment. The offering of one square meal in the middle of the day might seem trivial to those of us who have never known real hunger. But to the child who is malnourished and seemingly destined for a life of misery, it is the only means by which we can ensure a healthy future for both their bodies and minds.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation has been working relentlessly, not only to fight hunger but also to keep children in school, away from the streets, and give them the opportunity to better their lives. Beginning in the year 2000 by serving 1500 children across 5 schools, Akshaya Patra is today the world’s largest (not-for-profit) mid-day meal programme which serves wholesome and sufficient foot to over 1.4 million children from 10,661 schools across 23 locations in 10 states of India.

How much does it cost to keep a child fed through the academic year? Just Rs 750.

Take that kind of money with you to the mall, and you’d soon learn how pitifully insufficient it is. If you and a friend went to a multiplex to catch a film, you’d spend much more for the film and the snacks during the interval.

After the film, if you and the same friend went to a decent restaurant with that kind of money, I doubt you’d even reach as far as the appetizers.

And yet that kind of money can feed a child. For a whole year.

A startling idea that brings a whole new perspective to life.

If you want to be part of this revolution to defy hunger and build a new generation of people, you can. As Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

If you are willing to do that, rush to the Akshaya Patra Foundation’s online donation page and see how easy it is to make a difference.

A nation that does nothing while its littlest citizens go hungry has no right to call itself a great nation. Over time, children who are hungry or even malnourished find themselves suffering from a diminished capacity to understand and learn, to make the right decisions and to live life to the fullest. It is one meal a day that can save them from such a cruel fate.

Poverty is a complicated issue. And despite decades of posturing and shouting slogans like “Garibi Hatao,” I doubt it will be possible to eliminate poverty. And yet, through a programme like the midday meals, Akshaya Patra offers us a way to break down the barriers of poverty and make a difference to each child.

A midday meal boosts school enrollment, attendance and academic performance. A child that is well-fed is a child that will stay in school. A generation of children who are well-fed will mean a stronger, more able-bodied generation, that is not just literate, but intelligent and more competent to steer this country forward.

Akshaya Patra’s efforts teach us that it is possible for each of us to do something to feed our children.

In the Mahabharat, the Akshayapatra (Sanskrit for inexhaustible vessel) held a never-failing supply of food for the Pandavas every day.

Each of us could be the Akshaya Patra for our children. All we need to do is to spare Rs 750 to feed one child for one academic year. 

One hungry child at a time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Title: Dead Brilliant
Author: Christopher Ward
Publisher: Dundurn Press
Pages: 288

The premise for Dead Brilliant by Christopher Ward is in many ways dead brilliant, but it meanders on with too many characters and comes up with too many contrived coincidences, and ends up losing steam.

Roc Molotov is a rock star whose best album may find no takers, even as his greatest rocking days are behind him. Once the toast of the rock world, he finds that music alone is not enough any longer; the star making machinery of record companies now requires gimmicks to push record sales up.

With age catching up with him, the 38-year-old Roc finds his appeal slipping away. Every day, he finds himself sliding lower in the rock n’ roll food chain. His former band mates have split away and formed a band called the Cocktails, and Uncle Strange, his oldest friend and manager, has the temerity to suggest that he serve as the opening act on their maiden tour. To make matters worse, the Cocktails release an album a week before Roc can, and it hits Number 1 on the charts, riding on his reputation.

When the recording label shows scant interest in his record, Uncle Strange assets that desperate times call for desperate measures. He convinces Roc to agree to fake his death on MTV, adding that the move would give Roc much-needed publicity for his current album, besides the freedom to work on his music without any commercial interference. Uncle Strange would then release a whole body of music “posthumously”.

Since his love life with his on-off girlfriend Bobbie is going downhill and his estranged daughter, Emma, won’t acknowledge him, he agrees to the crazy scheme.

Soon it is a marketplace as his mom and Uncle Strange begin to cash in on his dead fame. Uncle Strange wants Roc to write a song to launch the career of his girlfriend, and Roc learns how difficult it is to stay dead when you’re not. Amid this crazy turn of events, Emma begins to grieve her father’s death.

Pretty soon, Roc allows his loneliness to get the better of his caution. And Uncle Strange, finding Roc unwilling to accept his suggestions or to act upon his bidding, begins to think it would be better if Roc were really dead, particularly when Emma, the heir, refuses to let him touch the profits.

Christopher Ward is Canada’s original MuchMusic VJ, the man who wrote Black Velvet, among other hits which have been recorded by such music legends as Diana Ross, and hit machines as The Backstreet Boys and many others. Ward brings to his novel a sarcastic eye born of years in the business and of knowing the music industry and its types inside out.

Reading the novel gives us an idea of all that goes on in the business to which he has devoted many years. This is fiction built on a foundation of a heavy dose of reality.

The book deliberately critiques the sort of people that, in the author’s words, let their hype buttons do the speaking for them, or, because they are in the music business, believe that they must copulate till their member falls off out of sheer exhaustion.

This is a business in which the fame and fortune run out eventually while the one-hit wonders find themselves on shows like “Where are they now?”

A business where the music is drowned out by the accompaniment of tours, groupies, the recording labels, stories of abuse etc.

Reading the description of the recording company, one gets an idea of how the music industry must have been, when music, not gimmickry, held centrestage.

The satire is unmistakable as when the author’s voice describes Uncle Strange’s hotel room as a mixture of “incense and pretence,” and the occupant’s carefully crafted identity.

The characters are well etched, particularly the two male leads. Uncle Strange is the consummate manager, pulling strings, placating egos, thinking up ruses to get the band going. He has the uncanny ability to sound sincere on demand.

Roc is the only character that does not stay true to type. For him, it is the music above all other considerations and he longs for a real relationship.

Unfortunately, the women in this story, Bobbie, the girlfriend; Tabatha, Roc’s ex-wife; Marie, the girlfriend of Uncle Strange; Julia, Marie’s best friend, all, except Emma, come across as flaky. Bobbie is better than the rest, but with her phone sex job, she doesn’t rise much higher than the others.

The cover is brilliant. It depicts both the outline of a coffin with the neck of the guitar that you notice when you stare hard, as also an icon of a face with the eyes closed and the tongue popping out.

The author succeeds in keeping the speech patterns true to the characters, and creates a world where friendships are fleeting but they could also last decades.

Ultimately, Dead Brilliant is a happy story, and tells you much about the nature of the music business. Not only is fame ephemeral but anyone can become famous and enjoy their 15 minutes, or less, of fame.

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Review: EDWINA

Title: Edwina
Author: Willow Rose
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 190

Not for the faint of heart, was the impression I got from reading the blurb at the back of the book. Since I am very much faint of heart, it was with much trepidation that I began to read this book. What a disappointment it turned out to be! 

There was so much potential to scare the reader. As a device, the possessed child frightens people like few other elements can. But Willow Rose seemed to want to tell a larger story about the neighbourhood than the one the title gave us to understand.

Six-year-old Edwina has been in and out of the foster care system, owing to the unexplainable deaths that often occur in any home that takes her in. Unfazed, spinster Marie-Therese agrees to take her home. She already has two children in foster care, a 7-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, Ida, who cooks and cleans the house.

Marie-Therese's neighbours are Thomas and Minna and their two kids, on one side, and unmarried couple Paul and Emma on the other. Thomas takes ill all of a sudden, convinced that Edwina has spooked him into ill-health. In the hospital, Minna comes to know of his affair with an office colleague. Their daughter falls down to her death from the treehouse that Thomas built, and the family disintegrates.

Meanwhile, Paul and Emma come to a difficult place in their relationship. Emma is afraid to admit to Paul that she is pregnant, even as he wonders if the child is his. Driving under the influence of alcohol, his car rams into Minna, as she is walking out of her marital home and her marriage, and kills her.

Marie-Therese calls a priest from a cult to exorcise the demons that have possessed Edwina. Midway through she changes her mind, and asks them to leave the house.

Soon, the weird happenings in the house escalate. Ida is cornered by huge rats, her flesh slowly eaten away by them, and the house burns down, killing Marie-Therese.

There were so many things that this book got wrong.

There were moments that were really scary, especially when the book talked about Edwina, and particularly from the viewpoint of Marie-Therese and Ida. But as the old cliché goes, the scary parts were few and far between.

For the most part, the book was all over the place. For a book called Edwina, there wasn’t so much about Edwina. So all the effect that Willow Rose achieved was undone. There were far too many chapters devoted to the neighbours. The extended chapter in which Paul wonders if the child that Emma is expecting is his was not required.

The neighbours should have had their drama in relation with Edwina. In a horror novel, it was unseemly on their part to go around having normal lives, with normal struggles, completely removed from the possessed girl in their neighbourhood.

Edwina is possessed by a demon. But we are also given to believe that her condition must be the result of some form of mutation that she underwent as a result of being conceived in Chernobyl, as also from the abuse and neglect she received at the hands of her mother.

At some point, the book shifted into fantasy mode; the girl being tormented by the big rats made sense in a horror story but the unicorn that rescues her made absolutely no sense to me. If there was some symbolism there, something rooted in Danish culture, it totally eluded me.

The Sisters of Pain back story to Emma’s life, the fact that Paul had been deserted by his mother while still a child, Thomas’ so-called affair with a one-time colleague, all of these had no place in a horror novel, unless they had also had an interaction with Edwina.

I also resented being made to like and sympathise with Ida, and then having to see her meet with such a horrific end. The Bering twins and their premonition of impending disaster failed to impress me.

As the titutar, eponymous heroine, Edwina was badly shortchanged, with everyone else trying, and being, central to the story.

For someone supposed to be possessed by a demon, there was no account of how Edwina acted while at school. Didn’t the green eyes exude any menace in the classroom? And clearly, Line Peterson, the social worker, is immune to any havoc that Edwina is capable of inflicting.

Marie-Therese’s sudden epiphany, wanting to become a good mother and look after and protect the three children she had taken under her foster care, seems too forced. Why does she get so inexplicably and fiercely protective of a girl she believed was, only a short while ago, possessed by an evil spirit?

The only part that had potential was the subplot of the shadow of her mother’s fundamental religiosity under which Marie-Therese had belaboured all her life, and how she finds herself turning into her mother, but that element was not pursued.

There should have been some amount of closure, even if the book was meant to be a part of a series. The conclusion was no conclusion at all; I do not appreciate being made to read an incomplete book, under the guise of it being a part of a series. By all means, spin off into newer books, but let each one have a beginning, a middle and an end.

This one just didn’t work for me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: 3 A.M.

Title: 3 a.m.
Author: Nick Pirog
Publisher: Alex Tooms Inc
Pages: 100

It was the premise that attracted me.

Henry Bins suffers from Henry Bins, a condition so rare, it has been named after him.

While the average person is awake for 16 hours each day, Henry is awake only for one hour every day, from 3 am to 4 am. The rest of the time, he can’t help sleeping a deep sleep from which no one can rouse him. There is no cure for the condition.

His body automatically jolts to wakefulness when it is 3 am. At the stroke of 4 am, he falls asleep, slumping down wherever he may find himself, often hitting his head on whatever object he falls upon.

While his mother abandoned him when he was still a child, his father has stood by him, a rock solid support. He has taught him Maths, Science and spelling, and made him as educated and knowledgeable as any other above average person among us.

At the beginning, he has a schedule for his lone wakeful hour. It consists of watching Game of Thrones on the Internet for 10 minutes, eating breakfast, which his house help has made for him, running some miles for exercise, messaging or talking to his dad, and showering. That schedule alters drastically when he hears a woman's scream, coming from the house on the other side of the street, and sees the face of the President of the United States, stepping out of her house – all this just as the clock strikes the hour of 4 am.

That is when the pace of the book steps up. On waking up, Henry is determined to find out if the woman is dead or alive, and if the President has been guilty of murder.

It’s an unlikely story, but Nick Pirog imbues it with passion, realism and a sense of urgency. He makes the investigation seem believable, filling it with intensity and a sense of haste that I have seen in the TV series, 24, with the additional challenge here of having to scrunch up all that excitement within the confines of one hour each day.

Like Henry, we find ourselves wondering about how much he has to accomplish in so little time. Nick, and Henry, never lets us lose sight of the time in the one hour and the criticality of each minute. Accounting for the time, minute by minute, you find yourself wondering if Henry will reach the safety of his bed, or if he will drop down even as he is being chased by the goons.

The story of his life, and that of the investigation, is played out in short one-hour nocturnal bursts. For the rest of the time, the world comes to a standstill, since our first person narrator is asleep. He does fill us in though, thanks to information streaming in through the Internet.

The character of Henry’s father comes across as very likeable. The guy genuinely loves his son, and is patient with the demands that his strange condition imposes on him.

Henry’s own conversational exchanges with Lassie, the dead woman’s cat who not only adopts Henry but also wholeheartedly embraces his condition, are also very amusing. 

I also liked the cover of the book, with its use of an innovative typeface for the name of the author. It lacks accuracy, though, since Henry solves the mystery over the course of many hours, spread over many days, and not in 3600 seconds, as the cover would have us believe.

The book succeeded in highlighting the importance of time through the premise of the strange,and completely fictional, 23-hour-sleep disorder. We have more time at our disposal, but what do we do with it? It wouldn't hurt to be more aware and mindful of how we spend every wakeful minute of our lives, and not pretend as though we will always have a never-ending supply of time to fritter away in mindless pursuits.

Of course, the plot is not without holes, as the premise does not account for what might happen if Henry were to fall sick. And while Henry understands that Lassie has to do his business, he himself does not seem to have any pressing business of his own to attend to, in the crucial one hour. 

No peeing happens either, in all the time we know him. And even though he's studied only in the one hour available to him, he's still super smart. I also found it strange that the police would be actively investigating murders at 3 am, day after day, when they don't suffer from Henry Bins syndrome at all. Also, the romantic element playing out between 3 am and 4 am at the close of the book is stupid and annoying.

But that is just a minor quibble. 3 am is extremely racy, and you won’t find yourself cribbing if Henry Bins keeps you awake long past your bedtime.

Product Review: Garnier BB Cream

I’m not the kind that usually signs up to review this kind of a product. I’m not much of a cosmetics user. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in a year that I wear lipstick, and while I might buy creams and face washes (for some inexplicable reason, I have a strange fascination for both these products), I rarely use them completely. More often than not, their Best Before date is up before I have used them to the fullest.

Makeup is an equally challenging beast. Supermodel Tyra Banks once said, “I like the confidence that makeup gives me.” Personally, I’ve never felt the need to squeeze confidence out of a bottle. And it’s not as if, you know, Maybe I’m born with it.

To this day, I am clueless about how makeup is used, and what should be done to highlight one’s cheekbones. In fact, I didn’t even wear makeup to my own wedding.

I find it more than a little disconcerting when a woman’s looks become the yardstick by which she is measured. Just how beautiful does a woman have to be before she begins to see herself as beautiful?

And so when Indiblogger offered the opportunity to review this product, I jumped at it. Maybe I wanted to know what BB actually stood for. The ads had staunchly refused to tell. The packaging continued the element of secrecy. Eventually, I had to Google the answer.

Then again, maybe I was lured by the desire to get perfect skin.

I’m human, like that.

I decided, why not squeeze out every drop of the almond-coloured cream, and see if it was good to the last drop. If it worked, this Diwali, the family might not need to put hard-earned cash down on Chinese lights that barely outlast the season.

The proof of the pudding would emerge if somebody pointed out that I was glowing. I just hoped they wouldn’t ask me if it was Luoov or Duoov.

It was the ease of use that appealed to me. Wash your face with a facewash, it said, then dab some BB cream. Light and circular strokes. Easy peasy.

I tried it, and it did feel good, and smelled nice too.

The BB cream is certainly going to need every ounce of its willpower to keep me feeling this good. Not an easy job, given the extent of pollution in this city; besides, it is Diwali pataka time, and October.

I won’t turn into a Garnier BB Cream bhakt overnight. Old habits die hard, and Best Before (another kind of BB) dates might sneak up on me, before the BB cream achieves its full effect.

Even so, this product has my aye-aye for its no-fuss stance.

“Fill it, shut it and forget it,” said a two-wheeler ad, decades ago.

Garnier BB Cream offers exactly that promise to your skin.

Friday, October 03, 2014


Title: Never Mind the Bullocks: One Girl's 10,000 km Adventure Around India in the World's Cheapest Car
Author: Vanessa Able
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Pages: 288

Never mind the Bullocks is the intrepid story of the 10,000-km journey that British freelance travel writer Vanessa Able undertook across 12 states of India in a Tata Nano. 

Starting from Mumbai, she goes through Nagaon, Pune and Kolhapur in Maharashtra; Arambol in Goa; Hampi, Bangalore and Mysore in Karnataka; Fort Kochi in Kerala; Kanyakumari, Tiruchirapalli, Pondicherry and Chennai in Tamil Nadu; Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh; Bhubaneswar and Konark in Orissa; Bodh Gaya in Bihar; Nainital in Uttarakhand; McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh; New Delhi; Omkareshwar in Madhya Pradesh, and back to Mumbai.

Vanessa shows herself fully capable of navigating Indian terrain and understanding Indian sensibilities, despite her position as a single woman.

About to turn 33, what she describes as her “Jesus year,” the year when He took up active ministry and was put to death, she translates it to her own life as the year when she must make decisions and change things. And so, this self-described ‘leaf that floated in the breeze’ and didn’t believe in a steady 9-5 job, decides to buy a Tata Nano, and drive across India in all her splendid and squalid glory.

Having made up her mind to circumnavigate India in a Nano, she enlists the help of the friend of a friend to buy it. When one isn’t available for outright purchase, she authorises the buying of a secondhand Rs2,40,000 Nano with air-conditioning and electric windows.

Still in England, she receives photos of her Nano from the friend and is suddenly hit with the realization of how unroadworthy it looks. It is too late to back out, and so she opens a blog, the Nano diaries.

When she begins her journey, she is hesitant, unsure of herself, and rightly so. After all, she is attempting this journey with no GPS, no navigator by her side, bits of road that may or may not be marked, where drivers play by their own rules, armed with nothing but a map of India, an old edition of Lonely Planet India and a book called Beginner’s Hindi.

This was not Vanessa’s first cross-country driving experience. She had driven across New Zealand, Serbia, Turkey, the American deserts, Mexico City, France, Italy and Greece. And yet, none of her previous experience had prepared her for what she would encounter on the streets of the riot of sound, colour and sensation that is India.

The book is not always complimentary to India. Vanessa describes things as she sees them, as they appear to her. Seen from the veil of Western perception, India does appear to be a land of outrageous chaos, a land which follows its own rules. And yet, we must be slow to take offence as each perception is entitled to its own opinion.

But there is no negativity here. She genuinely allows herself to soak in the sights and smells of the country in her attempt to feel at home during the three months that the 10,000-km journey would inevitably take.

Along the way, she gives us the history of how the Nano came to be, the promise made by Ratan Tata, the then Chairman of Tata Motors and the Tata group. As if to strengthen the premise, she repeatedly encounters families of four, riding precariously on motorbikes, and gleans the truth of Mr Tata’s desire to build an affordable car.

The narrative brings a smile to the face. The lady does have a felicity for the language. Sometimes though the writing becomes LOL-worthy, particularly when she elaborates on the Delhi Traffic Police’s website instructions to “divide the road mentally into appropriate lanes,” when they are not marked.

Other hilarious descriptions talk about the madness displaying sessions at the Osho resort, and of her getting lost in the hinterland of Maharashtra. Seen from eyes for whom the spectacle of India is novel, it is rather funny. And Vanessa’s observations are forthright, precise and sharp.

She offers deep insights, from a Westerner’s perspective, into the land that is the canvas for her journey that is at once harebrained as it is spiritual. Her experiences include intestinal upheavals, suicidal overtaking of lumbering Tata trucks on narrow roads and a deflated tyre on a dark night in Delhi. The beginning of a romance with Thor, a French-American, who accompanies her through two states and who she marries later, is marked by severe incidence of Delhi Belly. She is also attacked by a herd of elephants, is shaken by a highway ending abruptly into a sheer drop down a cliff and is horrified to see a bunch of half-naked mendicants at her window, shortly before midnight, on an ill-lit road.

As a reader, you warm to her as she discovers truths. Whether you are a Porsche or a rickshaw, you have to struggle for space, she says. In a country whose road network seems bereft of rules, she makes up her own, ranging from ‘There are no rules,’ to ‘Horn OK please,’ ‘Stay Safe’ etc. There are also rules that are thrust on her: Don’t try anything cute in Naxalite country.

Vanessa frequently takes detours, stopping by with friends or sightseeing. She even signs up at Super Driving School at Pondicherry to learn “Indian” driving.

Those looking for descriptions of India’s must-visit destinations will be disappointed. Vanessa’s descriptions are limited to her experiences. She rarely lets you armchair travel through the places she drives through.

All manner of roads play out as her stage, from crowded alleys, to mountainous climbs and sharp highways with well maintained tarmac. Through it all, she, a non-Indian woman coping with Indian realities, keeps her grip on the steering wheel and her eyes on the road, as she meets the challenge of bullocks and trucks driven by alcohol- and possibly crack-stuffed drivers and fears of Nanos spontaneously combusting against the backdrop of a heat wave. 

Her trusted Nano, anthropologically named Abhilasha, Sanskrit for aspiration, proves to be a valuable contender in taking on the challenge of the great Indian outdoors, as it juggles its celebrity status with the challenge of the road ahead.

Only somebody crazy would sign up for this act of daring foolishness, I had thought when I started to read.

By the close of the book, even I began to feel weary and fatigued as though I had been her co-passenger, mostly silent, except when a turn of phrase or a piece of narration got me laughing uncontrollably.

(I received a free Kindle version of this book through Edelweiss.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Title: Answering Your Kids' Toughest Questions
Author: Elyse M Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
Pages: 176

When I signed up to read and review this book, I thought it would serve as a wonderful guide and that it would help me to field the tricky questions right.

I certainly needed the guidance. As a parent, I don’t always have the answers, even though I’d like to have them. As a Christian, I’d like my answers to reaffirm my faith.

Tough job indeed.

Often I struggle with my own doubts and fears. You know what I mean. We are all plagued by questions such as Why does God allow wrongdoing to thrive? Why doesn’t He clean up the mess, when He could so easily do it?

With two children bombarding me with difficult questions (a few weeks ago, La N
iña asked me, “Mamma, what is an affair?” and I found myself hemming and hawing, as I fumbled for an answer), I thought this was one resource that would help.

Whatever I imagined that Answering Your Kids' Toughest Questions: Helping Them Understand Loss, Sin, Tragedies, and Other Hard Topics by Elyse M Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson would be, it was not. I had expected the book to be a practical guide that would help parents to answer those tricky questions. I found instead a book that thought it was enough to answer all questions with the same answer: faith.

The authors, a mother and daughter pair, emphasise that the book is not a script. That all questions must be answered in keeping with children’s ages, which they have divided into three age groups, preschool, 5-10, and 11+. In each chapter, they first explain the teaching to adults and then break it down in a manner that will be understood by children. Each chapter ends with a section called, “In a nutshell,” which summarises the answers for those in a hurry.

The authors answer questions like what is sin, what is death and why God allows it to happen, what is satan and hell, why do people get divorced, why and how do some people sin sexually, with sub-chapters on homosexuality, child sexual abuse and pornography, why does God allow natural disasters to happen, and why terrorism exists.

To make things more understandable, the authors use examples from popular films like Star Wars, anecdotes from daily life. They quote heavily from the Bible, proving well their familiarity with the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Here, the authors speak from the vantage point of their faith and trust in God is an oft-repeated theme throughout. And therein lies the rub.

All the answers are from a Christian perspective, and of course, I am a Christian, but I felt a little let down, partly because I was looking for practical answers that one could give to children.

Every chapter is imbued with the conviction that Jesus knows the paths we tread and is with us always. I too have strong faith in Jesus but to keep harping on the same explanation for varying problems to a target audience that has not quite achieved the age of developing a strong faith is, in my opinion, not achieving the promise made in the book title.

While I understand what they were trying to say, I found the book unduly harsh, particularly to those who don’t share the same beliefs.

When explaining terrorism to ages 11 and upwards, she says, “We don’t need to fear someone who wants to kill us because if you are a believer, death is not your final destination.” That is taking things too far. Is a statement like that enough to soothe the fear in a child’s mind, say, a child who has seen some horrific images on TV or in real life? I don’t think so.

Earlier in the book, Jessica’s son asks her, “What if I snap my fingers? Is snapping a sin?” She asks him if he is snapping his fingers because he loves God and his neighbor. The boy replies no, and his mother tells him, “Then according to this verse you have sinned.

I’m not really equipped to speak on matters relating to theology, but when the author makes a comment like that, I’m already feeling more than a little peeved.

Even when talking about natural disasters, the authors make no mention of the fact that human beings are largely responsible for environmental degradation.

The Death chapter is another example of this strict adherence to matters of the faith. I cannot imagine talking to my son, who is a pre-schooler, in the manner prescribed in the book. Even if I did, I doubt he would understand.

The authors remind us to temper our explanations, based on the children’s perceptiveness and maturity levels, so that our little listeners are able to make sense of them. But the answers they give don’t follow this guideline at all.

While we must encourage our children’s faith, I don’t think this is the way to do it. Continually skirting the minefield of issues that daunt each question, and playing the faith card as the one-stop answer to all questions isn’t the right way to go about building a child’s faith. A child’s faith needs to be nurtured slowly.

And Jessica admits that faith cannot be taught. That we, as parents, can only nudge and guide our children to the right path, and that we need the Holy Spirit to make their faith come alive. I appreciated that sentiment. I was also touched by the parts where she explained the issue of Child Sexual Abuse to children. This section was handled sensitively and it struck a chord with me.

The book ends with an exhaustive listing of books that the authors have referred to for “Suggested reading.”

(I received a free e-copy of this book from Bethany House. I read it through NetGalley.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When freak accidents strike

I had my very own Freaky Friday last week. It was a freak accident as freak accidents go. 

Waiting to board the train to work, one of the women trying to get in ahead of me fell back on to the platform, landing straight on my foot. The steely point of her high heel landed smack on the big toe of my left foot. I felt, rather than heard, it pop, and immediately thereafter there was a sharp stab of excruciating pain.

Weaving my way through the crowd, I looked down at my foot to see the nail oozing blood from three sides; the nail itself had been dislodged and had risen up half an inch out of place.

Being a fan of the “keep-things-on-a-need-to-know-basis” school of thought, that is all the detail I shall give you. No sense in disturbing the last meal you had.

So I rushed to the only doctor that I found with the ‘Welcome’ mat outside his clinic, 
at that time of the morning, and he ripped out the nail (this is the last gross reference to the nail), dressed up the wound and plied me with an anti-tetanus shot and antibiotics. 

An old nursery rhyme went, “For want of a nail, all was lost.” My situation, thankfully, was nowhere as bad as that. The freakishness, in my perception, arose from the fact that having my feet stamped is not a new experience for me. On an average, I get my foot stamped at least once every two days. I don’t know what cosmic meaning to imply to this. Why people become incapable of standing on their own feet when they find themselves in my immediate neighbourhood, I do not know.

Following this accident, many people asked me if I gave the offending foot stamper a piece of my mind. I said, no.

For one, I was in too much pain to go out looking for her. Besides, I had just about caught a slight glimpse of the murderous heel. I couldn’t very well identify it in a lineup, unless the pointy end of the heel had my blood on it.

This morning I read about another freak accident. A young man, barely out of his teens, it seems, climbed up the cage of a tiger at the Delhi Zoo, crossing the standoff barrier that separated the majestic animal within the cage from the cruel animals outside it. A witness said he had been trying to get a better shot on his camera, when he tumbled in. As fate would have it, he got an opportunity to click a selfie with the tiger.

The tiger didn’t pounce on him immediately, but stared at him for a while, that some witnesses have described as 15 minutes. The man must have wished for unconsciousness, blessed unconsciousness, so he wouldn’t feel the moment of death.

But terror often heightens the senses.

That was when the Freaky Quotient of the whole incident exploded.

Some do-gooders thought they’d be doing the hapless ‘insider’ a favour by pelting stones at the tiger. It only served to enrage him.

The media has gone overboard with its descriptions of what happened next, but since I’m keeping it on a need-to-know basis, I’ll just tell you that the poor man was mauled to death.
The incident got me thinking about freak accidents. Accidents where the most insignificant and trivial incident leads to damage far beyond the cause.

The effects could be death, injury or damage to property, or a combination of all of these, but what marks the freak accident is that it occurs in such unusual circumstances that no one can predict that something could go so wrong.

That's the thing about freak accidents. 999,999 times out of 1000,000, all goes well. And yet once in a freak while, things go so horribly wrong, as if fate, old fate, were trying to make up for all the moments we’d been allowed to go scot free.

Have you ever experienced a freak accident like this?

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Title: Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth
Author: Aruna Nambiar
Publisher: Tranquebar
Pages: 233

To read Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth is to hustle down memory lane. Even though my childhood summer vacations were played out in a Goan village, and not a village in Kerala, there was still so much that I could relate to. Everything felt pleasantly familiar.

Reading the book was to taste and re-live the flavours of a much-cherished experience. The ‘soul-sapping afternoons,’ the ‘bumper crop of mangoes,’ and raucous playtimes with cousins were the stuff of my childhood summers too.

Geetha, her older siblings Mini and Raju, and their parents head to Ambalakunnu for the children’s annual summer vacation. There the children meet cousins Vikki and Divya from Delhi and the entire family and bask in the solid affection of their grandparents Ammoomma and Appooppan, known to the world as Devaki and Madhavan Nair.

Kakoos (latrine) Kannan is a plumber whose skills are limited to de-clogging toilet fittings. His wife, Sundarikutty, is a cook in the Nair household. Through Madhavan Nair, Kannan gets a job as a chauffeur in Kuwait, and the family’s fortunes improve fantastically. Kannan begins to be known as Koovait Kannan.

Ration Raaman is so known because he is the unscrupulous owner of a ration shop. His youngest son, Venu joins the police force, thereby improving his stock further.

When the story begins, the three families’ lives overlap. Venu’s marriage is fixed with Bindu, daughter of Kannan. The conversations around the alliance remind us of reality when the bride’s family’s ego gets a beating and the groom’s family flies high.

Even though Ambalakunnu is the kind of place where nothing ever changes, 11-year-old Geetha finds that the older Mini and Divya do not want to spend time with her. Lonely, she becomes closely acquainted with Kamala, the cook, and the other members of the household staff. Babu, the 15-year-old son of Kannan, smitten with Kamala’s charms, joins the group.

It is a happy time for the Raaman and Kannan families as they get ready for the wedding. Geetha herself believes that this will be a summer vacation unlike any other. But before the summer is gone, the situation will be unraveled for everyone.

The book brought to life the colourful summer holidays, complete with the joy of interacting with our cousins. The games, the telling of ghost stories, spirited boys-versus-girls fights between the cousins, card games (how I loved Donkey). There were so many things that were brought to life.

The imagery in the book deserves special attention. In one place, the author talks about a character’s heart which flutters like a flag at the Independence Day parade. 

The same character, in the throes of love, breathes noisily like an “octogenarian with a cold.” 

I particularly enjoyed “Mutton as tender as a heartbroken adolescent.” 

Another character’s eyes “darted hither and thither, in an uncanny likeness of a Kathakali dancer in the throes of a performance.” 

When Bindu’s prospective marriages fail to materialize, she creeps around the house “like a cockroach just sprayed with FINIT.” 

There are so many of these gems scattered throughout the book. Each one is steeped in the earthy reality of the land. You have to read the book to discover them firsthand.

There are many moments when you can’t help but laugh aloud, particularly when Ration Raaman’s family comes to see the prospective bride, Bindu.

There are so many little details that the author inserts into the descriptions, that give us a deep understanding of this time in the early '80s and add more than a touch of authenticity. A time when Sridevi ruled the box office and Kapil Devi had yet to retire. A time of obsession with chit funds. A time when we made full use of the inland letter even writing on the flaps and on the space just above the sender’s address. The status symbol yet completely impractical car that was the majestic looking Standard 2000. The great Malayali obsession with the Gulf (Goa had it too). It was an innocent world, particularly from the standpoint of a well loved and protected child.

The Keralite obsession with gold and the insidious practice of giving and demanding dowry are both highlighted here.

There is an assortment of supporting characters. Each character is built up nicely, both physically and with elements of their character traits thrown in, to help us visualize them better. Nambiar’s own attitude to them is mildly sarcastic, yet indulgent, recognizing them as types of characters that perhaps peopled her own childhood, as they did mine.

There is a mystery about the whereabouts of Dileep, the husband of Geetha’s eldest aunt, and Daamodaran Maama’s self-imposed exile that I hoped Geetha would ferret out. The truth does come out but not through her.

Bonus points from me for not setting the Malayalam words in italics, as authors generally do, but for weaving them into the fabric of the novel. As also for the illustration on the cover by Priyankar Gupta.

A part of me wanted Sundarikutty and Bindu to be taught a lesson they would never forget. But life doesn’t always play out like that. At the end of the novel, it isn’t Geetha alone who has her innocence shaken. We too feel rudely awakened.

At the beginning of the novel, Geetha is a blissfully ignorant child who knows precious little of the looks exchanged between the adults. By the end of it, she can’t bear the realization that has come to her. Babu too finds his naiveté shattered.

The end left me feeling dissatisfied, not because of any error on the part of the author, but because I had allowed myself to be so caught up in this idyllic world that it was as if my innocence too was being undone, just like that of the children.

Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth is a growing up story. Not only does Geetha become aware of the issues that maturity brings, she also becomes aware of the feudalistic notions that nearly all of us carry at the back of our minds, regarding the unapproachable distance between the ‘master’ and ‘servant’ class.

I would heartily recommend this delightful and charming book.

Monday, September 15, 2014


Title: The Gospel of Winter
Author: Brendan Kiely
Publisher: Margaret K McElderry Books
Pages: 304 pages

The one strong theme that you come away with after a reading of Brendan Kiely’s The Gospel of Winter is the dysfunctionality of the family of the narrator, Aiden. Reading the novel, you come away with a sense of the state of mind of this tortured young man, even as he makes a vain attempt to appear cool and nonchalant.

We get to know young Aiden at the family’s annual Christmas Eve party, held in their family home in Connecticut, USA. We come to know of the excesses that his mother has planned, as also the fact that his father, who he refers to as Old Donovan, is in Europe.

Slowly, layers of curtains are drawn aside to reveal the fragile instability of Aiden’s family. Old Donovan is influential at the world stage, yet barely registers his presence in his son’s life.

Aiden pretends to have it all together, an effect he manages only after he has snorted Adderall. He needs these chemical surges to quiet the fears and the emptiness within. The only affection he receives is from Elena, member of the staff. Elena gets him to volunteer at the church of the Most Precious Blood, hoping to keep him busy and connected to God.

It is here that he meets Father Greg, the only person who makes him feel good about himself, a man whose homilies are fun and who listens like he cares. Apart from Father Greg, Aiden longs for release, to be loved and feel wanted. 
One begins to sense Aiden’s need and dependence on Father Greg.

At school, Aiden is a loner with no real friends. The words, “Aiden’s a fuckhead,” are scratched on the back of a stall door in the boys’ restroom of his school. Knowing that he is an object of ridicule among his peers, he tries to shrug off his unpopularity, trying desperately to find solace in cigarettes and drugs.

At the Christmas Eve party, he finds himself bonding unexpectedly with Mark, Josie and Sophie, the children of his mother’s guests. Slowly, he is accepted into the inner circle of his new friends. And he begins to feel a renewed purpose, even though initially they do nothing better than smoking pot together.

Kiely’s characterizations are the highlight of the story.

Aiden is the kind of unreliable narrator that you feel utterly confused about. You sense his loneliness and you want to feel supportive of him. And then he admits that he thinks he looks “severely deranged when he smiles,” and you don’t know what to make of him. He admits that he has played the game where you try to flatline yourself and come back just before you tip over the edge. It is this sense of playing with danger that spells his need for affirmation from those around him.

Aiden reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster whose rages stem from his longing for love and belonging which are no different from the angst that Aiden suffers and the monster he is made to feel like by some people, like Cindy, his mother’s friend, and other guests at the party.

Old Donovan is too busy saving the economy to be there for his son. He is a dad who discloses to his own son that he has a mistress.

Aiden’s mother is a character unto herself. Kiely tells us, in Aiden’s voice, “Mother always found the loose stitch that could reduce a priceless carpet to a pile of threads.” These little touches suddenly reveal a character far better than the greatest descriptive passages.

Kiely’s touch is not reserved for people alone. The very town they live in becomes emblematic, a perfect setting of the kind of people that live there. As the author describes it, it is “A Catholic town that liked Mardi Gras and Easter brunch and preferred to skip the Lent in between.

Even though it is in Aiden’s first person viewpoint, he does not hide the truth of his addictions from us and makes no attempt to make us feel sorry for him. The conflict is slow to build up, showing up only towards the end, when 80 percent of the novel is underway. Only four chapters, the story moves to a swift denouement.

Aiden is taken aback when Father Greg who never has an unkind word for him, suddenly becomes abrupt with him. We become aware that Father Greg is trying to distance himself from Aiden.

The liking we feel for Father Greg suddenly dissipates when we become aware of the reasons behind his friendliness towards Aiden. The same friendliness that he is now showing to James, a young kid who has just become an altar boy.

In the first reading, the ending left me feeling a little dissatisfied. I would have liked Aiden to hit Father Greg or lash out at him or at least to want to see him punished.

But the writing is deliberately vague at the ending, a change from the stance throughout where Aiden has never shied away from telling it like it is. Perhaps it is an indication of the sense of wounding that Aiden will always carry around with him.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Book Review: LONG LOST

Title: Long Lost
Author: David Morrell
Publisher: Headline Book Publishing
Pages: 352

I must confess that I couldn’t bring myself to read Long Lost by David Morrell for a very long time. Being a mother of two very young children and an aunt to two young boys, the thought of a child disappearing like that never to show up again in the parent’s lifetime was enough to give me the creeps.

It was only recently that I made the supreme effort of rejecting my fears as mere superstition and began to read the novel. As expected, it was a racy thrill of a ride.

The very first paragraph compels us into a sense of urgency with the information that Petey is missing. Add to that a sense of guilt from the hurt look that Petey gives his older brother of whom he thought the world, and we are already in the thick of the action.

Nine-year-old Petey Dennings begins to bicycle home after being snubbed by 13-year-old older brother Brad for getting in the way at a baseball game. But Petey never gets home.

There is no demand for ransom and his body is never found. Brad’s life spirals downward with his mother and father getting addicted to sleeping pills and alcohol respectively, and losing their home life and the house, and the father dying in a car accident shortly after that.

Nearly 25 years later, Brad is a successful architect and is interviewed on TV, where information about the disappearance of his brother years ago is revealed. Of the many cons that claim to be the missing Petey, one man stands out for the accuracy and truth of the revelations of the past he makes, stuff that only Petey could have known. And that is how Peter, a drifter, sometime construction labourer, becomes a part of the lives of Brad, his wife Kate, and their son, Jason.

The couple, propelled largely by the sense of finally assuaged guilt that Brad has carried for so long, and a genuine affection for the brother he lost and found, go out of their way to make Petey feel at home, and to help him to work his way up again.

On a camping trip, Brad, Petey and Jason try to recreate the magic of a summer camp the two brothers had gone on with their Dad. Brad has no idea how drastically things will go wrong. When Petey pushes him down a gorge and disappears with Jason and Kate, it is the beginning of Brad’s worst nightmare.

In an attempt to find his brother and his family, Brad gets into the character of his brother, forcing himself to think like Petey would have. The FBI’s investigations revealed that the man Brad thought of as Petey was in fact Lester Dant, but Brad is sure he is Petey who has assumed Dant’s identity.

For the next few years, Brad sells his business and takes up an itinerant lifestyle on the road, desperately making investigations, trying to retrace Petey’s steps and find his family. Travelling through a number of American states, Brad tries to make sense of who Petey had become.

But the struggle is elusive. Will he ever find his wife and son? And if he does, will they be alive?

Like Brad, we too feel a strong sense of “If Only.” We feel his frustration and misery at knowing that one selfish act in his childhood could have snowballed into such a terrible thing.

What I found impressive was the amount of research that Morrell has put into the novel. Research on any subject, regardless of whether it plays a deep role or not. The information on hypothermia, guns, investigation methods and con man practices, hiking trails etc are examples of this.

The writing for the most part, didn’t really stand out, but the chapter in which Morrell describes Brad’s hair-raising experience in the rest room with the man who may or may not have been a predator (as readers, we never quite know) caused my hair to stand on end.

The chapters are short, which helps to keep the pace going, and translates into an edgy experience. Through it all, one gets an understanding of Brad’s doggedness, his willingness to put his life on the line to rescue his family. The strength of his character, set against the delinquency of the antagonist, Petey, is what keeps the book going.

There is great attention to detail here. The action is high adrenaline as we, the readers, make Brad’s struggle our own.

Divided into six parts, each part takes us inexorably closer to the truth of where Petey was for the last 25 years, how he had been treated and what he had become. Every shocking discovery leading to something even more frightening.

Even though parts of the book seemed to stretch on too long, particularly the part where Brad describes his architecture practice and business, the book packed quite a punch.

This is clearly the stuff that good thrillers are made of.


Title: Summer of Dead Toys
Author: Antonio Hill
Pages: 368

Originally published in Spanish, The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill is a multi-layered story about a burning issue that is in crying need of being spoken about.

The Epilogue’s first person viewpoint of an unnamed six-year-old boy who has just espied Iris, an older child, floating dead in the swimming pool gives way to the third person viewpoint of Hector Salgado, a man whose distress is evident in the first few pages through his lost sleep, his lost suitcase and his estranged wife, Ruth, and consequently, son, Guillermo.

Undergoing a departmental inquiry for beating up Dr Omar, an African witchdoctor accused of trafficking young Nigerian girls, Hector is suspended. One of the girls, 15-year-old Kira, kills herself brutally rather than submit to the nightmare of prostitution. Furious at the sight of her bleeding and lifeless body, Hector loses his head and beats up Dr Omar. 

Suspended temporarily, Hector is assigned to the suicide/accident case of 19-year-old Marc Castells, who stepped out on the window sill of his attic for a smoke, and plunged down four storeys to his death. Just before his death, Marc had spent the festival of San Juan with friends Gina Marti and Aleix Rovira in his room.

Marc’s father and the police believe that it was an accident, but Joana, the mother who abandoned Marc when he was a baby, thinks otherwise, and puts pressure on Superintendent Savall.

Pending his own investigation, Hector takes over the case unofficially. Personally he believes that Marc’s death was an accident, induced by momentary dizziness as a result of the alcohol, and then he begins to suspect something more devious.

Joana receives a mail from alwaysiris@hotmail.com, forging a sudden connection between the reader and the Prologue, a rude awakening for the reader, and reliving nightmares for Fr Felix, Marc’s uncle.

When Dr Omar disappears on the very day on which Hector was to meet him, leaving behind a pig’s head and blood everywhere, it seems evident that Hector is to blame for the disappearance and subsequent murder of the witchdoctor.

Meanwhile, skeletons begin to tumble out of people’s closets. Carefully cultivated facades begin to crack. The mystery deepens as hidden agendas are revealed.

Will Hector succeed in solving the mystery of Marc’s death, and will the answers in the Dr Omar case convict him?

In the hands of a great writer, the matter-of-fact can become revelatory. And so Hector’s “accusatory wardrobe full of empty hangars” tells of a once full life gone to pieces. The loneliness and anxieties of of a man whose wife has left him is seen in the condition of his fridge, “empty as a brothel in Lent.”

Hill does a great job with the characterizations. The characters come alive, in just a few words, and not through literal descriptions but through their back stories, their habits and mannerisms, our psychological makeup that defines us more completely than our appearance does.

The language learner in me is always thrilled to read Spanish words strewn about, words that served to bring the Barcelona setting alive.

The characters are all strong. Whether it is Sergeant Martina Andreu, Hector’s colleague whose loyalty to him encourages her to make investigations on his behalf, or Superintendent Savall, or the new recruit, Leire Castro, who partners Hector on the Marc investigation.

Each character has layers and complexities, even those that aren’t central to the story. And almost everyone is belabouring under the weight of their own anxieties, tortured by their own minds.

In the case of Marc, the layers are literally peeled aside, one by one, as we come to know him after his death, through the statements of those who knew him in life. If there is any occasion when the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead is turned on its head, it is at a murder investigation.

The women are all a credit to their sex, with strong feminist overtones to their thoughts and speech, and their desire to empower others. Leire denounces the trafficking of young African girls.

And yet their vulnerabilities clearly show through. Even Ruth, Hector’s wife, who walks out on him, claiming to want to explore her sexuality, is an example of the power exuded by women in this world.

Interestingly, in a remarkable change of technique, the author describes the present in the past tense and the flashbacks and memories of the past in the present tense, making them real and vivid.

As the protagonist, Hector is sufficiently troubled in his personal life, yet overcomes these challenges to surmount the challenges of his professional life.

The language is more figurative than literal. First you read the words, and then instead of reading on, you find that your eyes have retraced the journey that those words have made, finding meaning, layers, behind those words. Perhaps it is the dulcet rhythms of the Spanish that have crept through.

The omniscient narrator takes us into the third person lives of all the characters. The resultant atmosphere makes for a richer, more nuanced understanding of what is going on in the lives of the characters, what is at stake for them, not just in the investigation, but how it spills over into their personal lives. The psychological aspects of the case are brought to us and we begin to appreciate the many nuances that may life at the heart of any event.

The novel also highlights issues such as father-son relationships and child sexual abuse in a sensitive manner.

Starting from a time in the past, described as Yesterday in the Prologue, the chapters encompass many events from Wednesday through Sunday, until the Epilogue takes us to today, a point six months later.

The Prologue comes to life and one gets an idea of how the novel led up to that one point.

At first, I could not understand the meaning of the title, but by the middle of the novel, awareness had dawned painfully. The Summer of Dead Toys referred to the insidious practice of looking upon children as playthings meant to satisfy the twisted desires of a perverted adult.

A richly layered novel. This one is worth reading.

    "Blogging for Books provided this book to me for free in exchange for an honest review."


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