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."

Monday, September 01, 2014


Title: Private India
Author: James Patterson and Ashwin Sanghi
Pages: 470

Private India is a part of a franchise of Private stories, set in different countries, and there is the suitable combination of local and global flavours, like a McDonald’s offering, that might appeal to the mass market reader.

The Prologue brings up memories of the train bombings of 2006. Subsequently, the novel dives into the action, a murder of a doctor in a hotel room. A private investigative agency, Private India, headed by Santosh Wagh, is called in by the hotel to investigate the murder. The police, for an unconvincing reason, agree to let PI handle the investigation as long as information is shared with them and credit given to them entirely.

The next day, there is a second murder, followed by one murder every day. Each time, the victims are women. In each case, there are strange, incongruous objects arranged around the victims’ bodies. As the bodies pile up, the investigators step up their investigations, hoping to find the link between all the victims, and prevent another murder.

Midway through the story, Jack Morgan, the founder of Private and an ex-CIA agent, drops in and becomes embroiled in the story. The list of suspects grows, as does the killer’s appetite. Will Wagh be able to avenge the victims?

For readers starved for crime thrillers set in Mumbai, the reasonably authentic descriptions of the setting help. The 470 pages of the novel go by fast enough, thanks to the simple writing and the large point size, but tighter editing would have made this a better read. Whole chapters should have been done away with.

The chapters are short, but the pace is slow, picking up marginally after the second murder, and then floundering again with one too many murders. It is hard to imagine an individual hating nine women equally, hating them enough to want to kill them. After the fifth murder, I began to feel bored. At 116 chapters, a Prologue, that doesn’t quite fit in, and an Epilogue, this book is at least 2/5ths too long.

In keeping with clichéd tradition, the leading man, Santosh Wagh, head of PI, has a distressed past, a nightmarish car crash in which he lost his wife and son. He also has a severe drinking problem. It is to drive home his agonies that the narrative keeps going into flashback mode. Unfortunately, each flashback reveals more of the same, utterly failing to reveal the complexity of the character.

Wagh’s assistant, Nisha Gandhe, comes with her own baggage. As do the other members of Wagh’s team, Mubeen Yusuf, the forensics expert, and Hari Padhi, the computer specialist. All these guys are supposed to be the best in the business, but you wouldn't know that unless you were told. They are that good at hiding their brilliance.

There are far too many characters, all superficial and clichéd, and many of them coincidentally acquainted with each other. The character of the gangster, Munna, completely lacks punch and fails to come across as a fearful gangster. All the characters are painted in the same washed out colours. This is an example of lazy writing that failed to evoke any emotion in the reader.

In many places, the writing is poor, with grammatical errors. Dr Zafar, the state forensics doctor, says to Dr Mubeen, "Never knew you would come so late," when he should have said, "I never thought" or "I didn't think."

There are so many paragraphs that are loosely and lazily written. At the first crime scene, Nisha speaks of wanting to bag evidence: a single strand of hair, as though she already knew that the police would allow a private investigative agency on its turf. In another chapter, Dr Mubeen says that his medical estimate is that the second death happened between 8.30 and 10am. He then adds a fact that we learned a few pages before, that the cleaning lady discovered the body at 9.30am. Why didn’t his medical estimate take the fact into account?

There is far too much happening here. The underworld, a sleazy godman, Bollywood, terrorism via the Mujahideen and the ISI, drugs, the Thugee cult, transsexuality, the Tower of Silence, some sex scenes that made for extremely tedious reading. I began to lose interest midway through the novel.

I also found the narrative voice annoying. Wagh has an encyclopaedic memory but the omniscient narrator dismisses it as “information that no normal individual would bother to hold on to.” Surely a detective’s profession required such wide-ranging knowledge. Elsewhere, Wagh is described as answering “robotically.” The omniscient narrator is supposed to be neutral. Yet in speaking of the Shiva Spa Lounge, it comes across as sarcastic, when referring to a character.

There were many false leads that were thrown along the way with the attempt to mislead the reader, and at least one of them is not taken to a satisfactory conclusion. Padhi is projected as a suspect. He calls a husky female voice on the phone, and the brief conversation is rather mysterious in nature. Thereafter, the authors simply forget to explain this hitch away.

The painting in the home of Priyanka Talati, a singer and one of the victims, is worth $3 million. Her home is worth $20 million. Indians talk in terms of lakhs and crores. Weren’t the authors sure of the market they were trying to address with this book?

I have never read a James Patterson novel, though I’ve seen two films, both starring Morgan Freeman, based on his books. Considering how tightly the films were scripted, I can only conclude that this book is more Sanghi than Patterson, and that the latter’s only contribution is the franchise element of the novel. Patterson has earlier collaborated on such novels with other writers in the other Private books. This one is the 8th in the series.

While most of the book failed to thrill me, it was when the PoV turned to that of the killer that the writing turned markedly better, particularly when the killer spoke about feeling pleasured by the fabric used for the strangling. The chapters written from the killer’s PoV exuded the right touch of menace. Ideally, there should have been one after every murder.

The mystery of the killer, I thought, was handled well. It was the lead that was way too long and annoying. Also, the terror element, like an afterthought, didn’t do much to the story.

In sum, not a book I want to recommend.

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