Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Title: The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life
Author: Lauren Markham
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 320
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham attempts to humanize the stories of undocumented minors against the political backdrop of US President Donald Trump announcing a war on undocumented migrants.  

The author does this by highlighting the efforts of teenage twins, Ernesto and Raul Flores of El Salvador, to enter the US. She has written this book after hours of research and investigation into the lives of undocumented minors coming in from El Salvador via Mexico.

The names of the family members have been changed to protect their identity, but the struggles faced by the brothers and their family members is very real.

Most illegal immigrants come to the US in the hope of securing a better life, but for many, says the author, that means a life where they are not afraid of being killed.

That’s what it is like for Ernesto and Raul, seventeen-years-old when they make the perilous journey up North.  Their older brother, Wilber Jr, had already gone to America, because there was no future in their country. 

There are six other siblings, older and younger at home; their parents have lost four babies. Of these, the author also gives us glimpses of Ricardo, who has a drinking problem and flirts dangerously with joining the gangs, and Maricela, who becomes an abandoned single mum, and looks after the family.

Meanwhile, Ernesto and Raul plod on at school, watching as their friends join gangs and snitch on those who won’t join. Ernesto, more aggressive than his twin, wants to follow in Wilber Jr’s footsteps and build a better future for himself; Raul wants to work as a banker in another city in El Salvador.

Their dreams fall by the wayside as El Salvador succumbs to waves of violence and gangster unrest. Conditions worsen and it becomes a place where the threat of death…was just as powerful as death itself.

When Ernesto gets into trouble on account of a jealous uncle, the family borrows $7000 to send Ernesto up North, and then another $7000 for Raul, when gangsters mistake him for Ernesto and almost try to kill him. Both boys suffer and witness harrowing sights on their way, and suffer depression and nightmares even months after reaching the US.

The family believes that they will be able to pay off the debt once the boys reach the US. But that is not what happens. 

In the US, the twins get caught up in the struggle to seek documentation. They miss their court hearing, and need a lawyer to fight their case pro bono. They enroll in a school and get part-time jobs, working in shifts, but the meagre amounts they earn don’t make a dent in the mounting debt.

They face other challenges. Besides the lack of language skills, the low wages, they are also plagued by their desire to fit in, to want the lifestyle that they see others enjoying. They don’t seem capable of taking advantage of the American Dream. They keep getting caught in its trappings, wanting to spend their money on iPhones, Nike sneakers, smoking, and girlfriends. Ernesto’s teenage girlfriend gets pregnant, and gives birth to their daughter.

It is only when their father, Wilber Sr, sells off a parcel of land, their inheritance, that the debt can be wiped off, and the twins can begin to dream of a fresh beginning.

The title comes from the phrase, hermano lejano, faraway brother in Spanish. Hermano lejano is the Salvadorean term for a person who has crossed over into the US.

The narrative of the Flores twins is interspersed with the history of the resettlement of refugees, how various administrations have dealt with the issue, the amount of money involved and the corruption that prevails, the deplorable conditions that exist.

We also come to know of what those left behind in El Salvador go through. The fear of the gangs, the inability to make money to fend for themselves and their families. Theirs is a sorry lot, justifying why so many people undertake the journey El Norte.

In giving us the overall picture about the twins as well as the family back home, the author tells us of the magnitude of the problem. In giving us a deeper understanding of the situation of the twins, she helps us see that each case matters.

The author tells us about the extent of migration that has taken place in a decade – 7% of the population of El Salvador went to the US, compelled to escape the violence and instability back home. She describes the geography of the terrain that separates the US and Mexico, in the form of the Rio Grande. 

We get an idea of the hazards, physical and mental, that migrants allow themselves to be subjected to, in order to enter the US.

She does a spot of hard talk, insisting that while Trump believes that border protection is the central issue, it is important to see why people are seeking to leave. We have played a major part in creating the problem of what has become of Central America, and we must play a major part in solving it.

She adds, The United States can build a wall, dig a two-thousand-mile trench, patrol with drones and military-grade vehicles and machine guns, and put thousand more guards at the border. Desperate migrants will still find another way.

As a reader, I felt a strong sense of anger at the twins who continued to make the wrong choices, trying to enjoy the fruits of the American Dream, even before they had earned a right to the rewards. They are unable to pay off the debt, but they don’t seem overtly worked up about it.

Through the writing, the author maintained a neutral tone. There was not the faintest trace of judgement or censure on her part as she set down the facts, helping us to understand just why someone would choose to uproot themselves from their homes and countries and make the perilous journey to the Land of Opportunity that is America.

(I received a copy of The Far Away Brothers from WaterBrook Multnomah.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Title: The Goat Thief
Author: Perumal Murugan
Translator: N Kalyan Raman
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
Pages: 240
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan takes a slice of life, the thinnest sliver of one, and illuminates it, and the revelation is dazzling.

The stories inevitably turn on the protagonists. The intensity and the relentlessness with which the characters find their situations changed for the worse is totally inexorable.

In The Well, we watch with disbelief as an innocent episode of swimming in a well, along with three children, aged 8-12, becomes dangerous for a man. 

This story sets the stage for the others, and we become mentally prepared to realise that we will learn to identify with the protagonists of Perumal Murugan’s stories only to watch them suffer, often for no fault of theirs. It is a reminder about how life, and society, often stacks the odds against us.

In The Wailing of the Toilet Bowl, a newly married woman overestimates the amount of rice she must cook for the day, and the leftovers end up in a vat filled with stale rice. The question of how to get rid of it torments her. Her husband pours the contents of the vat into the toilet bowl, and so begins her irrational fear of the never-satisfied hunger pangs of the toilet bowl.

In Musical Chairs, a husband and wife become obsessed with a chair they find in their new house. By and by, the couple find themselves driven apart by their desire for the special chair. The wife then prevails upon her husband to buy her a chair of her own, but he transfers his obsession to the new chair, and it too becomes a source of friction.

In The Night the Owls Stopped Crying, Raju, a night watchman, falls in love with the ghost of a rape victim who haunts the sprawling estate that he has been hired to guard. He thinks his suit is doing well, until the living begin to pose a hindrance to his dreams.

In An Unexpected Visitor, an old woman who lives alone, vainly hoping that Death will claim her, discovers a renewed burst of energy when her granddaughter and her husband ask her to look after their six-year-old son for a few days.

In Mirror of Innocence, a two-year-old girl wakes up in the middle of the night bawling and demanding a certain something and frustrating her parents and grandmother. There can be no peace or sleep until that thing is identified, discovered and given to her. Here, the author captured very well the frustration of parents when little children throw tantrums.

In The Goat Thief, Boopathy, the eponymous thief, tries to escape with a stolen goat under the cover of darkness. His efforts fail, and he loses the goat. When he tries to make a getaway, he finds himself chased by the villagers. Feeling completely beleaguered, he rushes madly into a coconut grove, only to find himself dangerously trapped.

In the starkly named Shit, we come to know of the narrator and his friends, all bachelors, residing in a large rented house. They live a good life, drinking when they want to. The star attraction of their drinking episodes is an attractive plastic tumbler, that one of them gets to drink from, in turns, while the others make do with steel tumblers. The house they live is enveloped in a dirty stench, caused by a rupture in the pipe  leading from the toilet to the septic tank. To repair the problem, the friends must pay a sweeper Rs 500, an amount that seems exorbitant, until the narrator, and we, realise the enormity of the sweeper’s efforts.

The story consists of dual stories about the tumbler and the shit, which go on parallelly, leaving us confused about how they could belong in the same story, until the author gets them to converge in a spectacular manner.

In Sanctuary, the narrator, a youth becomes so engrossed in the games he plays with little boys in a well, that he actually regresses to a child himself.

Muthu Pattar is The Man Who Could Not Sleep. The insomnia is a strange affliction for him, a hardworking old man who has always rested well after hard labour. The cause of the insomnia is a sudden spurt of jealousy he feels, and he resolves his problem in the only way he knows how.

The heroes and heroines of Murugan’s world are threatened in their own stories. The character swimming in the well, the newly married housewife all alone at home, they all find themselves consumed by their circumstances. 

And yet, even as they find themselves alone, one can sense their fortunes being guided by Murugan, who feels deeply for them in their predicament.

Most of the characters, both the leading ones as well as the secondary characters, are unnamed. The exceptions are Raju, the night watchman, Boopathy, the goat thief, and Muthu Pattar, the old man who cannot sleep. Even Paati and Kunju, the great-grandmother and the child, are a form of address and a nickname respectively.

The long paragraphs, most of which are over-a-page in size, invite us to immerse ourselves in the story. Like the protagonist in The Well, we jump in with jolly abandon only to find that it is not so easy to get out of it, to extricate ourselves from the clutches of the little tyrants. The stories, like the well, claim us.

There is a sentence in the first story, The Well, Like a ripe coconut detaching itself from a bunch and dropping to the ground, which describes how the protagonist jumps into the well, while the children are still arguing over who will be the first to disturb the well.

The significance of Murugan’s stories fall into our consciousness with exactly the same precision and delicacy.

(I received a free copy of this book for the purpose of this review from Juggernaut.)

Book Review: BONFIRE

Title: Bonfire
Author: Krysten Ritter
Publisher: Hutchinson
Pages: 288
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Reading this book, it really helped that I had no idea who Krysten Ritter was. I’m not much of a TV viewer (the Husband and kids have carved out their TV time, which doesn’t leave any for me).

I found Bonfire rather slow to begin with. This bonfire took a while to get crackling, but by the time it was roaring, I found myself settling in, really enjoying myself.

Abby Williams returns to her hometown, Barrens, after 10 years. An environmental lawyer in Chicago, she returns home to build a case against Optimal Plastics, the firm that employs almost everyone in town and is at the heart of its economy. The activities of the firm’s factories are polluting the drinking water at the reservoir, and she seems to have a solid case, if only Optimal didn’t scare off the witnesses.

Abby hopes to solve the case and head back to Chicago, but it won’t be easy. Before long, she finds herself pulled into a scandal that affected girls when she was in high school. Her one-time best friend, Kaycee, and her clique, who used to bully Abby relentlessly, had suffered an illness back then, with terrible symptoms. That case had hit the headlines until the girls revealed that they were faking it.

Now Abby wonders if Kaycee had really been faking it. If her symptoms weren’t in fact a cry for help. If they weren’t related to a seedy game, involving dirty pictures and blackmail, that afflicted young girls back then.

As she ponders over the past, her present seems just as complicated. Her dad, who she’s spent 10 years hating, is suffering from Alzheimer’s’ Disease, and Abby is unable to confront him. Misha, who used to bully her, is now the principal of the school, and seems keen to befriend her.

Also, Brent, Kaycee’s high school boyfriend, now a high-powered Optimal man, seems intent on wooing her again. But Abby finds herself drawn to Dave Condor, the single father and one-time school dropout who runs a local pub.

Abby suspects that Optimal is to blame somehow, that the environmental problems are linked with what is happening with the teens, with what happened to Kaycee a decade ago. But it won’t be easy to discover what they have done wrong and how. In Barrens, you can’t just peel away the present from the past. It’s like trying to get gum out of your hair: the more you try to separate it, the more strands get caught up.

There is a bigger, deeper conspiracy afoot. But what is it? Figuring out the answer will be like the hard stun of a wave you’ve been watching get closer.

The book is written in the first person present tense point of view of Abby. The narrative helps us see the small-town world of Barrens, where everyone knows each other, and only a few dare escape. The very name inspired visions of a dead-end where nothing got better. No wonder most people were so unwilling to offend Optimal.

The book started slow, but I slowly warmed up to it. The plot was well crafted, meticulously drawing the past into the present, tying up loose ends, cleverly and sensitively.

At first it seemed to be all about environmental violations, but then there were tensions, emotional entanglements, and deceit that crept in and the plot got thicker.

There is something about Abby that makes her want to take dangerous decisions, ignore her gut feel, and choose the dangerous option. I always want the things that hurt most.

She is a conflicted person. She ran away from Barrens yet ended up returning, doing the exact opposite of what she wanted to do. Time isn’t a line, but a corkscrew, and the harder I’ve pushed, the more I’ve drilled back into the past.

As a person she seems weak, but as a lawyer, she is skilled, tenacious. She digs in, reading up on old news, about investigations and complaints, payoffs and bribes. If you throw a dart enough times, eventually you’ll hit the bull’s-eye.

She realizes that a lot of the things she took for granted about Barrens and the people who drove her away aren’t true. Everything I learn makes the picture clearer, but also bigger — like climbing out of a ditch only to find myself at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

In time, I began to like Abby, for her perceptiveness, for the fact that she was always an outsider. On the fringe of things, bullied, unloved even at home, by a father who couldn’t see beyond his religion, and a mother who couldn’t because she was dying.

It’s the richness of the prose that will stay with me. Sample this:

The room slows its turning, like a merry-go-round reaching the end of its cycle.

Loneliness turns from an ache to a hard punch. I think of all those rose-cheeked children, all those families at their dining room tables making wish lists: snowglobes of normalcy.

I know that kind of laughter: like the hooting of an owl sighting a mouse. Sharp. Predatory.

Like all prey everywhere, he knows when there’s danger in the air.

About Kaycee: The kind of girl you could only get close to the way you have to creep sideways toward a wild animal, not making eye contact, so it won’t run away.

About herself: I’m a fish, lashing out in its last moments still tethered to a hook.

In fact, each of the chapters or scenes were ended in a manner that forced the reader into contemplation of a mood or a phrase. I liked that.

Nor does the author feel compelled to wave a magic wand and make everything well for Abby. The past is just a story we tell. And all stories depend on the ending. And endings are what we make of them.

There is no happy-ever-after for Abby, but there is a reconciliation, an understanding, a sense of peace. That’s the funny thing about home: you’ve always arrived just as soon as you stop checking the compass.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Friday, November 24, 2017


Title: Blood Sisters
Author: Jane Corry
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Pages: 352
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Blood Sisters by Jane Corry takes us into the lives of two little girls, bound by blood, both the blood of kinship as well as that of spilled blood, from evil visited upon them in the past.

The prologue gives us a hint of innocence, unsuspecting, and how it is destroyed with horrible consequences.

In Part 1, we are in 2016. Alison Baker runs a stained glass making course at a local college. She is also suffering from some past tragedy and cuts herself to get away from the pain.

She signs up to teach art to prisoners in an open prison. But danger, it seems, is lurking within the prison. She receives threatening notes. At first Alison is afraid, but then she begins to settle down in the prison, seemingly lulled to the danger lurking within.

The same tragedy has seen the institutionalization of Kitty, Alison’s half-sister. Kitty has lost control of her memories and is unable to give voice to her thoughts. She is also wheelchair bound for life.

Alison believes that she caused the death of Vanessa, Kitty’s best friend in school, and the maiming of Kitty. Only Kitty knows the truth, but she is incapable of telling anyone.

But all along someone is watching them both, someone who means to punish and destroy them both.

The book is written in the first-person present tense point of view of Alison and the third person past tense point of view of Kitty. Part I sees their alternating twin narratives start in September 2016 and go on till January 2017.

In Part II, we get a flash of 2001. We are led back to 2017, to the difficulties that Alison is facing, as a prelude to what happened back in April 2001 to Ali, as she was known then. At this point, the narratives begin to alternate with Alison in the present day and Ali in 2001. I was nearly missing Kitty’s POV when Part III began, and Kitty was back.

Both girls were extremely well drawn, thanks to the manner in which the author built them up.

I liked Kitty. Even though no one would give her credit for it, she notices things like A mouth that smiled. Eyes that didn’t.

The accident has damaged her brain, specifically her memories, though she still retains her self-centredness, the basic nature which had been fueled by goading on the part of her best friend, Vanessa. Despite the special needs she now has, she manages to impress us with her personality.

The accident has also affected her motor coordination, her ability to walk and her speech. The words are clear in her head, but no one can understand them. When she tries to nod her head in response to a question, it comes out as a shake.

We can see the disconnect between her thoughts and the interpretation of her caregivers and the other other inmates. Only Johnny, who suffers from Down’s Syndrome, and with who she gets into a physical relationship, clearly understands what she is trying to say as well as if she had actually said it.

At first, I thought I liked Alison, but then I realized that while I didn’t like Kitty at all, Alison wasn’t as clean as I’d thought she was. She was capable of deception, lying, to save herself.

At heart, both sisters were deeply flawed, subject to human emotions like jealousy, anger, rage. But they did seek to redeem themselves, and that was good.

The two are half-sisters, with a seven-year age gap. While they look physically similar, they have completely different personalities. Kitty is always hostile to Alison, and their sibling rivalry takes a turn for the worse as the book goes on.

As Alison says of the tumultuous relationship, It was like living with the school bully but never being able to swap classes.

Bit by bit, the author gives us a peek into what the sisters are really like. For instance, Alison’s reasons for hating to do portraits, You have to get into someone’s soul to make it really work. And I definitely don’t want to go there.

The book drew me in. It was unpredictable. I just didn’t know what was coming next. The revelations kept piling up. 

I particularly appreciated the sensitivity with which the author described the inmates at the home. Not only Kitty, but Johnny, Margaret, Duncan and the others were all shown as real humans with real human needs. The fact that Kitty tended to lash out also becomes understandable when we get to know of her deep frustration emerging from her inability to make herself understood.

The only thing that struck a false note for me was the fact that Kitty’s memories started returning after she went into labour. It just seemed too pat and unreal. 

Also, the manner in which Kitty’s final revelation came out appeared to be too rushed, as if the author having drawn out her story, was now anxious to bring it to a close.

After all the effort that had been put into establishing how spoiled  Kitty was, it was hard to believe that she had any submerged filial feeling for Alison.

Overall, Blood Sisters had a theme of redemption, of opportunities to right the wrong choices made in the past, of secrets and lies that hurt those we seek to protect.

Above all, it spoke of the complexity of the relationships between sisters, the admiration and love, often mixed with jealousy and loathing.

The author puts it best when she says, Love is close to hate when it comes to sisters. You’re as close as two humans can be. You came from the same womb. The same background. Even if you’re poles apart, mentally. That’s why it hurts so much when your sister is unkind. It’s as though part of you is turning against yourself.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: THE OTHER MAN

Title: The Other Man
Author: Shashank Kela
Publisher: Juggernaut
Pages: 208
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Other Man by Shashank Kela is fiction that strikes such a realistic chord, it pains us with its intensity.

When the book begins, we see two men killed in an encounter killing. One of them, Shankar, born Roshan Ghandy, is a known Maoist, the other, a lawyer, Stephen Murmu, may or may not be, though he suffers the same fate. 

The scene of the encounter is Kakrana, state unknown, which functions as a kind of Every Place because the sort of injustice that takes place here is the kind that could fell people down anywhere.

Inspector Dayanidhi of the federal police agency is assigned to the case by his director. The official story is that the two prisoners were killed while they were trying to escape. But Daya is convinced that this is a deliberate killing, with political motivations.

His investigation is not welcomed either by the station officer responsible for the encounter, or the shadowy web of political and industrial characters whose financial interests are threatened by it. 

At the heart of the conspiracy is the mining company whose tentacles are spread wide through the land, touching people’s lives, and toying with them in equal measure.

It is ironic that the name Daya should be chosen for the protagonist who spends his time and energy diligently tracking down the truth behind the encounter killing. In real life, Daya Nayak was an encounter specialist, who was involved in over 80 encounter killings of members of the dreaded Mumbai underworld.

Here Daya is that rare commodity, an honest policeman who is at once realistic about real-life conditions and idealistic about his pursuit of justice. He is unpopular with his colleagues, self-effacing and a loner.

I liked Daya’s methods, how he succeeded in throwing his quarries off guard, the way he questioned people, the way he interpreted their answers, and his observations about the most random occurrences and events. It is not hard to see how well his background, his wide reading of Motaigne, Stendhal etc as well as of Tennyson, Robert Frost and Gerald Manley Hopkins have shaped his thinking. (If you can, do Google the Margaret poem by Hopkins, and interpret it in the context of Kakrana.)

The best part is that he does his job without any high notions about himself. When a character observes, “You take your job seriously,” he says, No more than the next man, I hope.

While Daya is a very significant character, the author also lets us into the lives of Shankar and Murmu, who we get to know posthumously through the accounts of those who knew them well.

Most of the important characters are unnamed, for instance, the station officer, who is referred to as the station officer throughout the story. But the author does give us the names of bit characters like Sudha K, Surab Singh M’ta, Sudhir Pathak etc.

The only part I didn’t like is the fact that the author did not give the antagonists a name. Perhaps it is deliberate, this understanding that names do not matter, that there are antagonists such as these in every scam and case afflicting our land.

The author writes from a knowledge and experience that comes of having worked as an activist in a trade union of Adivasi peasants in western Madhya Pradesh between 1994 and 2004. 

The wealth of his knowledge gives his book layers of authenticity and realism. The book is steeped in the stories of ordinary people affected and troubled equally by the Maoists as by the police and government machinery, their daily lives sad and miserable.

The writing is sparse, lean, economical. The dialogue crisp and crackling. It reminded me of the Pulitzer Prize winning pieces that whittle away the thin line between news and fiction.

The figures of speech were pointed and colourful. The word, encounter, fills Daya’s mouth with a metallic taste of ashes and aloes. When such accidents become too frequent, they remind him of a theatre of death with the props carelessly arranged.

Elsewhere, the author describes excavators as metal insects in a Martian landscape. He describes the patient grieving of the habitually downtrodden Murmu family as that stubborn tenacity which outlives anger or hope.

The author has reserved his most pithy observations for Daya. He says, For all our boasts of antiquity…we don’t like its remains: stone is quickly painted over, frescoes whitewashed, new shrines built to replace the old.

When it is not something that Daya says, it is something said of Daya: One forgets how dangerous an honest cop can be.

Elsewhere, It was his habit to gauge the amount of ‘influence’ that might be brought to bear upon an investigation should its direction prove unwelcome – much as an ox might gauge the weight of the load it is harnessed to pull.

To read this book is to imagine the scene playing out in your mind. Dry and sered, much like the arid landscape of an art film, where the truth isn’t pretty, and where the tortured reality never changes.

As readers, we learn of the conspiracy, the lies jostling with the truth, through the medium of the telephone conversations between the key persons. Daya is not privy to these revelations, of course, and so we watch as he comes to his own conclusions, struggling with theories that are plausible, but which he cannot prove.

The book ends, it seems, with no real closure. And yet that’s the extent of closure we are permitted. Those of us who live in India know how dangerously close to reality this is.

We get a sense of the futility of life, where people are killed for their beliefs, and where loyalties are bought and sold by the highest bidders.

It’s not often that I recommend a book that leaves me with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction. The Other Man, stark and blunt as it is, deserves a wider audience.

(I received a free copy of this book for the purpose of this review from Juggernaut.)

Friday, November 17, 2017


Title: The Broken Girls
Author: Simone St James
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 336
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a book that started slow and awkward. I almost gave it up. Thankfully, I didn't. 

I almost never give up on a book and my patience and determination to keep reading were rewarded with this slow burner that soon picked up pace. 

The Broken Girls turned out to be a thriller and murder mystery that went beyond its genre, growing to be an indictment of the Holocaust and its excesses, a paranormal ghost story, a tale of friendship spanning decades, a tale of justice denied and fought for.

Fiona Sheridan has not been able to get over the loss of her sister Deb, who was strangled and dumped at Idlewild Hall, an old, abandoned girl’s school which has been abandoned since 1979. Deb’s boyfriend, Tim Christopher, was tried and convicted of the crime, but that has not given Fiona closure. She is still haunted by the crime, unable to move on, even as Tim has spent 20 years in maximum security jail. She wonders if Tim killed Deb, or if someone else did.

Fiona gets herself an assignment, writing about the restoration of Idlewild. The new owners are Margaret Eden and her son, Anthony. Her efforts are supported by Jamie Creel, a cop and her boyfriend.

On a tour of the place, with Anthony, Fiona learns that another body has been discovered. The body of a school girl, Sonia Gallipeau, who was killed in 1950, and her body dumped in an old well.

Fiona, already grieving Deb, grieves also for Sonia, the 15-year-old orphan girl whose life had been brutally cut short. She becomes determined to find out who killed Sonia, while also seeking to find out who killed Deb.

But Jamie’s father, Garrett Creel, a former police chief, resents her attempt to revive the case. How far will he go to stymie her efforts. Will Fiona succeed? Will justice be served to Deb and Sonia?

After the Prologue set in November 1950, in which we learn that a young teenage girl is about to die, the story alternates between the 3rd person past tense viewpoint of Fiona in November 2014, and to those of Katie Winthrop, Roberta, CeCe and Sonia Gallipeau in October 1950.

In time, we get to know the four girls, room-mates turned friends, quite closely. We learn of their individual histories, of how they came to be at Idlewild Hall, the boarding school of last resort, where parents stashed their embarrassments, their failures, and their recalcitrant girls. 

Each of them had a strong story which came out well. I was particularly touched by what Sonia had gone through, having lived at Ravensbrück prison as a young child.

Through the twin narratives of Fiona and the Idlewild girls, we are acquainted with Mary Hand, a ghost who haunts the school. A ghost who is brings to life a person’s worst fears. A ghost who terrifies you with your worst horrors. Mary was a strong presence who left her mark on the story.

Initially, I found the writing banal. The devices the employed were old and worn out. For instance, we get Fiona’s description when she looks into her car’s rearview mirror. We find Jamie talking at length, about something that Fiona already knows, but that, she says, she wants him to talk about because it’s more fun to get information from you. How bland is that!

But gradually, it seems as if the author gets more comfortable with the story, and you settle down for the ride. Simone does a great job of creating a mood of suspense and terror. It is in the descriptions and the action sequences that she truly excels.  There is something forbidding, brooding about the descriptions. The landscape of Vermont comes alive, in a way that helps one imagine it.

After the first few chapters, the writing became more intense. The fear that the characters felt, the emotions and feelings they went through became more real to us. I felt a deep sense of compassion for the four friends in 1950, with no family to love them.

I didn’t quite take to Fiona initially. Her dad was more vigorous and alive, compared to her. But gradually I began to like her. Her character underwent a positive change. From being somebody who wrote fluffy lifestyle pieces, she began to want to write a story on Idlewild. 

I also appreciated the fact that even as she grieved for her own sister, she also grieved for Sonia, for the fact that no one had mourned her loss. Fiona’s tendency to not just want to whiz by, but to want to stop and truly see, also appealed to me.

I liked the description of Malcolm: Malcolm Sheridan had never done small talk — he was the kind of man who looked you in the eye on first meeting and said, Do you enjoy what you do? Do you find it fulfilling?  If you had the courage to answer, he’d listen like it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever heard.

Apart from these characters, I also found the four girls to be very strong and well drawn out. Jamie, on the other hand, I didn’t much care for, even though the author went on and on about his muscular arms. His character arc didn’t grow as well as Fiona’s had.

In contrast, even Lionel Charters, who plays a bit role, came out stronger.

The younger man-older woman pairing, 29 to 37, was bold. But the romance, in the initial chapters, was utterly lackluster. It was also a little unreal that Fiona felt absolutely no insecurity about the age gap. But then again, maybe it was because she had freethinking, hippie parents.

Once again this relationship also benefited from the improvement in the writing.

The book gently mocks old-time phrases, like being born on the wrong side of the blanket, as well as the girls' textbook, Latin Grammar for Girls. As Jamie says, “The good old days when apparently Latin was different if you were a girl.” And using the term ‘iron deficiency’ for having one’s period. 

The author makes fun of the outdated notions in a gentle but firm manner. It was not assumed that the housewives of the future needed to know much about science.

But there were some errors and some awkwardness that slipped past that should have been caught.

Early on, Fiona tells Jamie, “It pays to have a nosy journalist on your side,” and that’s funny. Fiona is far from nosy.

The name and surname, Charlotte Kankle, were repeated five times and Cindy Benshaw twice. Surely the author could have called her just Charlotte the second time onwards. On the other hand, we don’t get to know Roberta’s surname until 2014, as part of Fiona’s research. But these were minor errors in the larger scheme of things. 

The cover was beautiful. The intimidating image of Idlewild, as seen through a cracked window pane. 

The book was beautiful, and the women characters and their stories certainly deserve your attention.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).


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