Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Book Review: CHOKER

Title: Choker
Author: Elizabeth Woods
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Pages: 240

We hear Zoe’s voice before we even see Cara and yet it is unmistakably Cara’s voice that stays with us throughout this story, a fact that is crucial in the development of the story.

Zoe and Cara are childhood friends. It is a friendship that brings them both comfort and joy. Zoe is suffering on account of her stepfather, who is a paedophile, and Cara’s parents, busy lawyers, have absolutely no time for her.

However, Cara’s parents disapprove of Zoe, and they move away from Cara’s childhood home. Young Cara suspects that the move is designed to separate her from her best friend.

At her new school, Cara finds herself alone. She is bullied and belitted by mean girls, Alexis Henning and her best friend, Sydney Powers, and ignored by the others, even those on the track team with her.

When she has an unpleasant and painful choking episode while eating a carrot in the school cafeteria, it is Ethan Gray, Alexis’ on-off boyfriend who saves her life. Unfortunately, the incident earns her the moniker, Choker.

When Zoe runs away from home and shows up at Cara’s place, it seems like an answer to a prayer. Zoe moves into the guest bedroom at Cara’s house, and Cara promises to hide her from her parents.

Before long, Cara is feeling better than she has felt in years. Her confidence is back and she is performing really well on the track.

Her track team mates begin to befriend and most importantly, Ethan begins to show an interest in her. Could life get any better?

Unfortunately for Cara, Zoe begins to get more demanding, pushy and manipulative. Something in the friendship has gone sour, as Zoe resents Cara for having other friends. 

On the one hand, Cara cannot understand the change that seems to have come over Zoe, on the other, she feels guilty for enjoying her new friendships while Zoe is stuck home alone, forced to hide from everyone else for fear of her stepfather, unable to live life the way Cara seems to be doing.

There is a certain intrigue and mystery that surrounds Zoe, and we realize that she is hiding something from Cara, who shows herself to be too naïve and seems like putty in Zoe’s hands.

Before long, strange things start happening. First Sydney is found floating face down in her own swimming pool, and then Alexis goes missing.

The police suspect Ethan of having something to do with Alexis’ disappearance. And all the while, Cara wonders if Zoe has anything to do with the death of Sydney and the disappearance of Alexis. Will the police ever catch the real culprit or is Cara doomed to lose Ethan?

The story is written in the third person point of view of Cara, and we really identify with the girl, pitying her and wanting to comfort her through all the bullying that she is subjected to. 

Yet all along, we wonder why Cara won’t stand up for herself, first against the bullying of the mean girls, and then against the bullying of Zoe.

The story really reeled me in. The ending didn’t blow me away because I had expecting something like this, but the manner in which the author built her story was really good. It is only at the close of the book that you notice the red flags that have been planted all over the story. 

The author, at least, has not deceived us. 

Of course, this is meant for a Young Adult audience, one that may not have read so many thrillers and may not be acquainted with the techniques of the genre.

The beauty of the writing is the ease and felicity with which a reliable narrator, somebody we have liked and sympathized with, and watched indulgently while that person falls in love, is transformed into an unreliable narrator. The shift, much as I expected it, took me by surprise.

I’m sure that the author’s younger readers must be blown away and must now be ready to read something even more deceptive and thrilling.

I, for one, would definitely like to read more from this author.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Title: Little Boy Blue (Helen Grace #5)
Author: MJ Arlidge
Publisher: Berkley Books
Pages: 395

I must confess that I had never heard of the Helen Grace series prior to this, and perhaps this book would have made far more sense to me had I read the series in sequence.

The story opens in a BDSM club where lines are blurred and sexual norms, mores and morals suspended.

We open with the 3rd person viewpoint of an unnamed male narrator, gay, recently split from his boyfriend, who enters a fevered liaison only to be brutally murdered.

Next, we see the 3rd person viewpoint of Helen Grace, inspector of police. Helen is brutally efficient and hard on herself. She has her own vulnerabilities and demons that she is combating. 

Helen recognizes the murder victim as her dominator, Jake. At this point, I gasped in shock when I realized the kind of demons she suffers from and the ways she has adopted to expunge them out of her system.

At first Helen used to hire the services of Jake, but when he began to develop feelings for her, she used the services of Max Paine, another dominator, and when he proved to be irritating, she moved to a woman, Angelique, hoping that working with a woman would free her from any attraction.

Meanwhile, Sally, married for 20 years, is worried when her husband, Paul, does not return home from work. This has happened once too often and she suspects that he might be having an affair. But the truth is even more difficult for her to handle.

While the case troubles her, Helen also has to contend with the sparring and bickering between her two detective sergeants, Charlie Brooks and Sanderson, who have a bitter rivalry. Even though the heroine of this book is Helen, the story pays equal attention to the efforts made by her two deputies.

Helen is afraid that the investigation will reveal her own relationship with Jake, and call her integrity into question. If that’s not enough to give her sleepless nights, journalist Emilia Garanita who would like nothing more than a salacious story, truth optional, is aware of her past and determined to tell all.

Helen is tormented, anxious for the investigation to go on, and fearful for what it might reveal. She keeps the truth about Jake to herself, but when Paine is murdered even more brutally days later, she confesses her truth to her superior, who later makes a pass at her.

Shortly after, Angelique is murdered, and Helen becomes aware that somebody is out to get her. Unfortunately for her, the others don’t quite see it that way, viewing her activities most suspiciously. By the end of the book, Helen is arrested for committing three murders while the real killer roams free. How is she to prove her innocence? We will have to read the next book to find out.

Generally, I find it annoying when books don’t conclude decisively and authors expect you to read the next one to find out what they should have told you in the previous book.

For the greater part of the narrative, the writing is good. But occasionally, the writer succumbs to the use of clichés such as ‘cutting to the chase’ and ‘sixteen to the dozen’ which even beginner writers know well that they must avoid.

Given the nature of the book, there are references to nudity and some forms of perversion.

The chapters are short, making the action in the narrative move faster. Still, hurtling through the book doesn’t get you anywhere, as there are more questions than answers awaiting you at the end.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Book Review: BLIND SIGHT

Title: Blind Sight
Author: Carol O'Connell
Publisher: Headline
Pages: 320

A cloistered nun, Sister Michael, is out in the city in New York to buy roses, when she is abducted. Twelve-year-old Jonah Quill, blind since birth, also vanishes from the same busy street in the blink of an eye. Simultaneously an elderly gent is mugged.

Kathy Mallory is a woman with a formidable reputation. Part of the Special Crimes Unit, Fr Brenner seeks her help to find Sr Michael. But then the nun’s body, along with that of three others, is found on the lawns of the Mayor’s house. Young Jonah is dumped there too, but the killer makes off with him.
While his life is spared, Jonah finds the strength to fight back and resist his captor, relying on his other senses.

Through the course of the investigation, Mallory and Riker, her partner, discover a murky conspiracy afoot, one that involves the Mayor somehow. Who could have wanted a nun dead? But Mallory knows that the nun was Angie Quill, a former child prostitute, who suddenly upped and fled her former life and turned religious. And why the other three victims, all of whom are recluses with no family or friends?

Mallory and Riker believe that they are up against a cold-blooded killer with psychopathic tendencies. Yet Mallory also believes that they are confronted with a hired killer, in turn hired out by the actual killer. Somebody had wanted four people dead, not just those four, but just four from four different neighbourhoods and he had hired a professional hitman for the purpose.

The book is interesting, the peek into investigative procedures fascinating.

The omniscient narrator spares no one. The attitude is brash, sneering, in-your-face. The smirking tone does not help. The narrator’s thoughts in italics are used for all the characters, to show mental sparring against others. I wished the author had cut down on the second guessing. I found it most annoying.

The narrative is personal, almost as if the narrator were one of the characters within.

As a character, Kathy is far too tough and hard, the sort that chews hard nails for breakfast and bad guys the rest of the day. It was hard to relate to her although I did appreciate her capacity to deduce volumes of information out of nothing. Riker describes her methods as forcing puzzle pieces to fit the picture she liked best.

But I liked her, especially the fact that she never took her eyes off Jonah and his welfare, never stopped caring about what happened to him. Even with a reputation for being a machine, she shows her human side.

Riker has tough competition to face, considering that the narrator seems too biased towards Kathy. Even so, he redeems himself for his quiet strength.

Bit by bit, Mallory and her team close in on the perpetrator. And the author does a good job of revealing her cards though I wish she had spent more time in character building.

It’s good to see a woman calling the shots, but I don’t much like the idea of a superhuman machine who always has the last laugh, never loses a bet, can make grown men squirm and has no vulnerabilities whatsoever. And all this while the sarcastic voice-over intrudes upon our sensibilities.

I found Jonah very endearing. His tendency to use street smarts to outwit his captor and would-be assailant and the murderer of his aunt is interesting. I admired his ease around spaces, the way he uses his mind and other senses to make connections that the sighted might easily miss. His couldn’t-care-less attitude in the face of mind numbing terror, his faith in the love of his dead aunt, his ease in his surroundings are all admirable.

When Jonah makes a feeble yet spirited attempt to escape, my nerves were all a-jangle. Because while he is smart and independent, he is still vulnerable. Worse, he is also a kid with a “smart” mouth, one that could get him killed. He persists in asking the killer some very difficult questions like What’s it like to murder people? or How many Hail Marys for killing a nun?

The kidnapper, Iggy Conroy, is an interesting character, who lives with a pit bull and the fear of the ghost of his dead mother, a fear that makes his susceptible to mind numbing fear even though he is a brutal killer himself. At one point, he thinks nobody ever screamed when the point of a knife was an inch from an eyeball.

And so we have a cat and mouse game, where the cat is unknown and the mouse lives from one day to another. The cops have few leads but Mallory and Riker shake them with all their might.

The dead Angie also makes a strong impression, simply because she was kind and loving to a child.

The mayor’s aide, Samuel Tucker, is described as not rising to the kneecap of a cockroach, while New Yorkers, it seems, want to make a show out of any disaster. The narrator also pokes fun at New York’s famous three deadbolts to every front door.

Roses are a motif that shine their way through the book, starting from the nun’s felicity with roses, to the killer’s preoccupation with them, to Angie’s tattoos.

The author gives us a lovely flavour of the place. For a novel that is called Blind Sight, it is fitting that we readers are given so many visual cues to a setting that we are unfamiliar with, or ‘blind’ to.

The beauty of the book is that you are given delicious hints as to who the perpetrator might be, but the truth remains elusive.

I liked the manner in which the author tied up all the loose ends. Above all, I liked the idea of love reaching out from beyond the grave.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Review: PASADENA

Title: Pasadena
Author: Sherri L Smith
Publisher: GP Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Pages: 240

The very first line captures our attention.

Seventeen-year-old Maggie Kim, of Korean ancestry and prone, it seems, to crazy errors, is found dead in her family’s swimming pool at their lavish home in Pasadena, on the outskirts of LA in California.

The narrator is Maggie’s best friend, Jude, who is away on the East Coast when she receives the news.

At first, Jude thinks it is suicide. The police and the coroner think it is an accident. But Jude cannot bring herself to believe that Maggie would ever kill herself. Months before, Maggie had called Jude, announcing her desire to kill herself, but she had not followed through, treating Jude’s fear as a huge joke. When it actually happens, Jude begins to suspect that Maggie may have been murdered.

Maggie and Jude are different, in terms of class, family background and level of sophistication. While Maggie is something of a free and wild thing, Jude comes across as sensitive, intelligent and loyal.

Visiting the Kims, Jude finds Maggie’s mother too peaceful for a woman whose daughter died the day before. She seems too cold, not at all cut up.

Bit by bit, we learn more about Maggie, as also about Jude. We come to know of Jude’s relationship with her mother. My mother criticizes and reverses with economic speed. Or My mother sighs like she’s just finished the dishes and I’m piling more into the sink.

We also come to know that while Jude considered Maggie her best friend and told her all her secrets, Maggie didn’t leave all her secrets in Jude’s care. Instead, she distributed them equally among her other friends, Dane and Tallulah, who are going steady and later break up; hippie couple Hank and Eppie; Edina Rodriguez, Maggie’s other BFF; Luke Liu, in love with Maggie since first grade, a guy who spends his time stalking Maggie and photographing her surreptitiously, and Joey, the guy who found Maggie lying face up in the pool, a guy who longs for a deeper relationship with Jude but is always thwarted by her.

Anxious to prove that Maggie’s death was not a suicide, Jude asks all kinds of uncomfortable questions of the other friends, gathered together at an informal wake. Her questions and comments expose the cracks within their relationships. As Jude says, Maggie Kim was the sun in our universe. We all circled her…And now that she’s gone, we’re shifting orbits. Colliding…or drifting apart.

The search throws up many unpleasant secrets along the way and the realization that someone can be your best friend in the world, but you’re not necessarily theirs. As she looks for her best friend’s killer, she finds the courage to face her own demons. Jude herself has some secrets which stand between her and a fuller commitment with Joey.

The sexual politics of the youngsters, with promiscuity and stalking, is thrown into the mix for good measure. The lazy life of a rich student jumps out at you, the knowingness but also the cluelessness. It gets darker with child sex abuse and the ensuing trauma.

The descriptions evoke the California of my imagination, fuelled by what Hollywood has taught me to believe. But they also speak of a California, as seen through the eyes of a local, not a tourist. The California setting is unconsciously important because as Jude says, Temblors happen here all the time. There’s just no way of knowing if it’s an aftershock from some long-ago event, or a precursor of things to come.

Bonus points for the amazing cover, which shows the body of Maggie, as seen from the bottom of the swimming pool, and the view of the palm trees against the blue sky.

As a character, Jude is likeable, but she can also be very rude and obnoxious. While we admire her for the persistence with which she seeks justice for her dead friend, we are equally frustrated by her unwillingness to accept and return Joey’s affections, for her insistence on treating him as a sidekick.

Joey is warm, friendly and loyal. He calls Jude out for her rudeness but stands by her side through it all.

Jude’s observations are smart. About the trees lining Maggie’s street, she says, No fruit, no flowers, and not a lick of shade. They’re wealthy trees – arrogant and useless.

The story is written in the first person point of view, in the present tense. But the flashbacks, about Maggie and Jude, are in the past tense. The flashbacks, views of Jude’s memories, are the only place where we see Maggie. Jude recalls, Big girls don’t cry, Maggie used to say. They get even. And so it seems that she is trying her best to get even with the world for Maggie’s sake. She regrets not being around when Maggie died, believing, that like Superman who flew backward around the earth to resurrect Lois Lane, she would have been able to prevent Maggie’s death if she had been around.

For a story about Pasadena and young people, many of them rich and entitled, this one ran much deeper than it appeared to on the surface.

I only wished that Jude had grabbed the chance of redemption for herself. She deserved some happiness, and Joey even more so.

A light read that still runs pretty deep.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

Monday, September 12, 2016


Title: Little Nothing
Author: Marisa Silver
Publisher: Blue Rider Press
Pages: 352

At first thought, you can’t imagine a more ludicrous story. The story of a girl, born a midget, who is artificially stretched to a full height, but then slowly mutates into a wolf girl, before ultimately transforming into a she-wolf, and then being transformed back into a woman. Such a convoluted story couldn’t possibly make any sense. And yet it does.

Little Nothing by Marisa Silver is the story of Pavla, the word for ‘Nothing’ in the unknown language that is spoken in the unnamed country in which she is born. Born to a middle aged childless couple, as a result of the blessings of a gypsy, Pavla’s parents are shocked to know that their child is a midget. 

At first they want to have nothing to do with her. But her winsome ways win them over, and they begin to love her.
However her condition, and the ill-treatment that she receives at the hands of the world, rankles them, and they visit many doctors in search of a cure. Eventually, a quack, Dr Smetanka, devises a torturous contraption that will stretch her to full height. While the ploy works, Pavla mysteriously begins to mutate into a wolf.

Dr Smetanka’s servant Danilo is the first real friend she has outside her home, but although she loves him, and he her, he cannot see past her freakiness. As the circus fortune teller tells them, One of you will be brave, one of you will be a coward. One of you will believe. One of you will doubt.

Eventually, Pavla becomes part of a freak show, attached to a circus, where she and Danilo are exploited by Dr Smetanka. When the bad doctor seeks to rape her, she attacks him in self-defence, completely transforming into a vicious wolf.

Later she joins a wolf pack, mates with the Alpha male and gives birth to four pups. When her mate and three pups are killed by a hunter, she and one pup escape, but are separated.

The writing is exquisite, inviting us into the life and world of Pavla. Over and over again, I found myself reading and re-reading a particularly beautiful turn of phrase. And there were so many of them, I'd probably end up quoting a large portion of the book. I also want to call attention to the cover. It seemed so fluid, in keeping with the shifting form of Pavla, but it also seemed to be wolf hair, seen at close quarters.

Like Pavla, Danilo too is an outcast of sorts, rejected by his parents. But by the time he realizes his love for Pavla, it is too late; she is a wolf, but Danilo proves his love by killing for her. In time, Danilo too begins to grow on us, because of his sheer love that gets him sentenced to the madhouse, where another adventure awaits him, and where he will meet another character that is crucial to the story.

Pavla grabs our hearts and minds in all her forms, whether as a midget, a freak wolf-girl, or as a wolf. We are consumed by the desire to know more about her. We are touched with sorrow at the silences she suffers through her life, a silence that will become a refrain, when a stranger falls speechless in the child’s presence, or when a villager pushes her children behind her skirts as she passes in the narrow market lanes to protect them from what might be catching.

Lines such as these make us want to know just what turn her life will take next. Pavla seems so naïve at the beginning, but she becomes strong as life repeatedly lashes out at her. She has us readers firmly in her grasp, from the moment the midwife tells her mother to picture a flower.

The set of characters are colourful, like no other I’ve seen before.

Václav and Agáta who are first disgusted by this disproportionate dollhouse version of an infant and then entranced by their child.

Boris Hormulka, who wakes Danilo up with a golden shower.

The little nameless animalistic boy, later named Markus, who triggers fatherliness in Danilo.

Dr Smetanka, cruel and utterly immoral and scarily amoral at the same time.

They all seem so real and yet so unreal at the same time. There is something both mundane and magical about life in this little village, so folksy, where the handing over of a used piece of gum becomes a privilege, and yet so universal.

The themes are indeed universal. The tendency of the world to cast out those that do not fit the mould, the desire for love, the duality of our nature that makes us abhor and be fascinated by something at the same time, and how love is often a lie. Love is filled with lies. We like you just the way you are. You are still beautiful. We will always be with you. She believes her parents do not love her less, only that before, she had a child’s notion of love that did not include the small treacheries of delusion and fear and shame.

There are a number of breaks in the narrative. We receive no information about the exact circumstances of her transformation from woman to wolf, and back again. Nor do we know what deep-seated trauma or cause leads to the transformation, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is our slow realization that love, to be love, remains unswerving, even when the object of our affection unwittingly shifts shape and form.

This story, so completely unalike anything we’ve read before, has us enthralled.

I was touched by the way the author brought the story around full circle. The story does not end with the characters getting together, but there is an element of positivity about it, so that you trust that the author will bring it to pass.

In the hands of a good writer, the most unbelievable story can come alive. That is what happens here. The world may shun Pavla for her freakishness. We do not.

When Danilo rejects her early on, we realize the loss is his, and he will live to regret it. And it is fitting that he rues his wrong decision to the very end.

To us, Pavla is a heroine, who fights her way through the circumstances that life dishes out to her, fighting hard and strong to prove herself. In each of the strange events that befall her, we stand true to her, cheering her on.

There’s no doubt that as stories go, this is the strangest of its kind, but you mustn’t let that dissuade you.

Like Pavla, you will soon realize that Nothing is indeed Everything.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)

Tuesday, September 06, 2016


Title: Winter's Child
Author: Margaret Coel
Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime
Pages: 295

The author paints a picture of a white world with her very first line. So powerful was the sense of imagery that she created that I felt myself in the scene.

The book begins with the third person point of view of Vicky Holden, an Arapaho lawyer. Clint Hopkins, fellow lawyer, seeks her help as co-counsel on an adoption case involving an Arapaho couple, Eldon and Myra Little Shield, who wish to adopt a five-year-old white girl, named Mary Anne, who had been abandoned on their doorstep while she was a baby. 

Since then the Little Shields have raised and loved her as their own. Now they want to formalise the adoption so nobody can take her away from them.

They approach Clint to handle what should have been a clear case of an abandonment, making the adoption a sure thing. Yet Clint finds cause for grave anxiety, something that gets him killed.

A truck mows him down on the street, killing him instantly, before he has the opportunity to discuss the case with Vicky. Since Clint was the kind of lawyer that carried his notes in his head, Vicky has to start from scratch, making it harder for her to retrace his steps, to learn what he learned, to find the thing that killed him, even with the fear that it might threaten her. 

Meanwhile she is busy trying to get Vince, a first-time felon with a drinking problem, to surrender and get rehabilitation.

Fr John O’Malley is the parish priest at St Francis Church for the last 10 years. James Two Horses is a parishioner who serves at mass and thinks he may have a vocation. 

Shannon, Fr O’Malley’s niece, comes over to stay at the parish to work on her doctoral thesis on Elizabeth Fletcher, one of two sisters captured by Arapaho Indians. The other sister Amanda had been rescued after six months, but Liz had lived her whole life as Lizzie Brokenhorn, an Arapaho woman, eventually birthing children and caring for grandchildren. At the time of the capture, Amanda had been 17, but Lizzie had been only 2 years old.

Fr O’Malley arranges for Shannon to meet Lizzie Brokenhorn’s relatives. History, Shannon knows, only tells part of the story. This is where we get to know about Lizzie. This part of the story was extremely fascinating. I wished the author had gone into greater detail.

James and Shannon are thrown together and get closer as a result. The beginning of the spark between them is beautifully described. I enjoyed reading about the conversations between James and Shannon, how their words matter to each other, how they hang on to every word.

Winter is everywhere in this story. It is almost a character, a powerful one, so pervasive is its presence and influence. We are overwhelmingly suffused by the cold; there is no getting away from it. The description of the winter appealed to me. They served to reinforce the title, for one.

For a long time, it feels as if the stories of the Little Shields and Vince had no relation with each other. But somewhere along the story, the stories of all the characters converge.

As the lead character, Vicky suffered from us not knowing much about her back story. Of course, we know she is dogged, even giving up meals in pursuit of the truth. We are given some sketchy information but not enough for us to make connections or even understand her. Towards the latter half, we come to know she has a son and a daughter who live in another state, but their relationship seems so remote, I couldn’t wait to get through it. Also, her tenuous connection with Fr O’Malley is not elaborated upon.

I wondered what this story would have been like if we had entered it from the viewpoint of the couple. I liked the description of Eldon and Myra, particularly the bits of details that were given to us in the form of Vicky’s impressions.

I liked the description of death: So many deaths, and yet each one a shock, a disruption of nature, a realignment of the world.

Clint has his own secrets but they don’t have much bearing on the story, even though they occupy a lot of space in the story. For some reason, the author focused too much attention on these irrelevant bits. Properly edited, this book could have been much tighter and shorter.

I found it interesting to read about confession from the standpoint of a Catholic priest. A sense that came from years of watching people shift about in their chairs, avoid his eyes, clasp their hands together, and, finally unburden themselves.

All in all, not a novel I’d recommend.

(I read an ARC from First To Read.)


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