Tuesday, November 20, 2018


Title: The Boy at the Door
Author: Alex Dahl
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 357
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Eight-year-old Tobias is not picked up at the swimming pool by his parents. Cecilia Wilborg, married to rich banker Johan Wilborg, and mother of two lovely daughters, Nicoline and Hermine, ends up taking the boy home. But when she finds his home uninhabited, she has no option but to take him home, as the kid pleads with her not to involve the police.

The boy, it seems, has some secrets. For one, drug addict Annika Lucasson and drug dealer Krysztof Mazur, the couple he was living with, may not be his real parents. But Cecilia too has her secrets, and the mere presence of the boy makes her uncomfortable. When the body of Annika is found, with Krysztof absconding, the police begin to wonder if Cecilia had anything to do with it.

Meanwhile, Social Services ask her and her husband, Johan, to take Tobias in until a permanent foster home is found for him. While Johan and the girls take to Tobias, Cecilia holds herself back. What are the secrets that they are hiding? And why is Cecilia afraid of Tobias?

The story is written in the first person present tense points of view of Cecilia and Tobias. Every third chapter is from Tobias’ PoV. Somewhere at the intersection of both accounts, things become clearer.

The aura of menace and dread is felt quite early. The weather plays a great part in adding to the tedium and the sense of strain that Cecilia labours under. The rain, the cold and the ice permeate everything, and lend it a dreary air.

Very quickly we learn that Cecilia is hiding something, and I had my suspicions about the nature of those secrets, even though it was hard to tell when she was lying and when she was speaking the truth.

But then things became a little more muddied with Anni’s intensely personal accounts in Part 2 and 3, before and after she became clean. They were heartrending and offered us a peek into the spiral that addicts find themselves in and how powerless they are in overcoming their situation. Anni says in her account that she felt so empty because nobody misses me or wants me to come home.

There was something so dreary about that line. It reminded me of Margaret Mead’s quote about our greatest need as being that of someone wondering where we are when we don’t get home at night.

I couldn’t understand why Annika gave in to such self-destructive tendencies, but there it was. She was ill-treated and made to sleep for money by Krysz, and yet she returned to him. She seemed to be caught up in a spiral of self-destruction and there was nothing to hold her back from going berserk, once the baby was given up for adoption.

She says in her journal, Some ideas are good and some are bad, and the problem is, of course, to be able to distinguish between them, something which hasn’t come easily to me.

Cecilia admits that she is far from an ideal mother. She is far more likely to want to sit with her feet up than attend to her motherly duties. She says, The thing about men, I find, is to treat them with a carefully honed combination of casual aloofness, sharp reproach and unadulterated adoration. It throws them, keeps them on their feet – you can’t be nice all the time.

This woman is very vapid, too interested in appearances. In being the object of others’ envy and jealousy. She’s neither reliable nor likeable. When Tobias asks Cecilia if Luelle, the maid, is her sister, Cecilia feels very offended.

I could not reconcile her selfishness with her concern for Tobias. She herself admits that she is empty inside. She refers to her own children as unnoticeable, but necessary, like good bacteria in the gut.

She wants to be perfect so her husband won’t leave her. She has a tendency to overthink, constructing elaborate stories inside her head. As when she convinces herself that Johan is gay. Or when Tobias is hurt, she wonders if he has had a paper cut or has been decapitated.

Tobias is an old soul in the body of a little boy. He hears the things that people don’t say; he is extremely sensitive. You find your heart going out to him. Through his accounts, we learn of how he came to live with Anni and Krysz who were not his parents, ever since the death of Moffa, who he loved.

Tobias refers to Johan and Cecilia as the father in the house and mother in the house. We get a sense of his sense of deprivation when he describes them: They’re very strange, but at the same time, I think it must be how normal families are.

He tells us a big truth about the complicated nature of our emotions when he says, I’m afraid and I think maybe I’m angry, but they feel quite alike so I can’t be sure.

Ultimately, this book was all about Tobias. The big secret that Cecilia was hiding wasn’t so earth shattering. I wish there was more of Tobias and Anni in the book. 

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Monday, November 19, 2018

Book Review: DRACUL

Title: Dracul (Stoker's Dracula #1)
Authors: Dacre Stoker and JD Barker
Publisher: GP Putnam's Sons
Pages: 497
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Dracul by Dacre Stoker, great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker, and JD Barker will overturn everything you read and imagined about the fictional story of Count Dracula. The most shocking conclusion that this book will ask you to draw is that Dracula was not entirely unreal. Isn’t it logical to assume that even the wildest of fables found life in a buried truth?

This book is written as the truth behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bram is one of the protagonists in this story. Dacre Stoker and JD Barker have written a creepy, taut supernatural thriller that is high on atmosphere. The book is written in the Now, when Bram is 21 years old, and Then, when he was 7, and 22 years into the future, when he is 43 years of age.

The Now, which is in Bram’s 3rd person present tense, shows a 21-year-old Bram trapped in a room, while a hideous monster tries to gain entrance in order to destroy his humanity. The room has been made secure with crucifixes and other icons of Christian belief, but it seems as if the evil is winning. How Bram comes to be trapped in such grave danger is something we learn only at the end, as the truth of the past and that night is revealed through the journals that Bram writes.

While in the room, Bram writes his journal in the first person past tense. The journal tells us of how he was a sickly child from birth, unable to venture out of bed, prone to fevers that are almost fatal. And that it is his cure that is in many ways his undoing.

At the age of seven, Bram is nearly at death’s door when he is amazingly cured completely. Everyone thinks that it is a result of the leech treatment prescribed by Dr Edward Stoker. Only Bram and Matilda know that Nanna Ellen has something to do with it.

The two children begin investigating, following Nanna to an old abandoned tower, where she disappears, never to return.

In the present time, Emily, Thornley’s wife, exhibits odd behaviour. Thornley, Bram and Matilda consult Arminius Vambery, who helps the three siblings in their investigation. Arminius is like Abraham of the Dracula tale.

The household then consists of his parents, and siblings, 9-year-old Thornley, 8-year-old Matilda, Bram himself, aged 7, Thomas aged 5, and Baby Richard, a 2-year-old. Nanna Ellen Crone is also a part of this household, having joined just before Bram’s birth. Although a servant, she is treated well. But she has strange ways, that Matilda and Bram begin to worry about.

Meanwhile, there are a spate of killings happening in the village; the O’Cuiv family is killed by the father, who then kills himself. Matilda and Bram begin to wonder if Nanna Crone has anything to do with them. Her absence at their family home coincides with the killings. Also, her behaviour and habits are rather odd.

Part III takes us to the 3rd person point of view of Arminius, Matilda, Bram and Thornley, all in the present tense, each taking us to the place where Ellen’s beloved’s heart has been hidden and inching closer to nightfall when the vampires will be at their strongest.

The last part brings us to Bram’s first-person point of view 22 years later.

The atmosphere created by the authors is suffused with tension. The setting is the historical fact of an Ireland struggling against famine and devastation. It is a time of increasing unrest in Ireland, with families being unable to sustain themselves. The number of crimes is rising.

The story comes to us in bits and pieces from the journals of Bram, Thornley and Arminius. Matilda’s viewpoint comes through in the letters she writes to Nanna Crone, informing her of all that is happening. Despite knowing that she is a vampire, the siblings feel affectionate towards her.

Of all the characters, Matilda was the one I liked the most. She was feisty, unafraid to dig in a burial ground for suicides for the body of Patrick O’Cuiv. Nor does she flinch from getting her hands and shoes dirty, stomping on roaches and even touching a corpse.

I couldn’t feel the same for Bram, even though his memories dominate the book. Like Arminius, our feelings towards him are tainted by the fact that he is not unlike the undead, and that he has somehow managed to evade the undead fate.

The thing about this book that causes you to sit up and take notice is the note at the end which tells us that Bram Stoker never intended his book to be a work of fiction. He had written it as fact, and his journals provide ample evidence of that. 

When publishers in the UK demanded that he re-write the manuscript in order not to spark panic among the public at large, Bram cut out the first 101 pages of the book and significantly altered the rest to make it appear to be a work of fiction. It was something he did not like to do but did anyway just so his message would find an audience, even if that audience were to consider his message as fiction.

However, the manuscripts that he sent to publishers outside the UK, notably to Iceland etc, were markedly different and point to the veracity of this story which has been created on the basis of the journals that Bram left behind.

I liked the book. It maintained a steady note of menace which was broken only by the knowledge of the different types of vampires, good and bad. Also, the feelings of unrequited love that Dracul bore towards Ellen took away from his cold-blooded menace. Towards the end, it became a little too melodramatic.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Title: The Colors of All the Cattle
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pages: 240
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Precious Ramotswe, the great lady detective of Botswana, has always been one of my favourites, even though I have read only one book in the series so far, and that too a decade ago. Still, like her husband Mr JLB Matekoni, who also happens to be one of the finest mechanics in Botswana, I too think very highly of her.

In this book, we see Precious being talked by her friend, Sylvia Potokwane, into standing for election to the local council. Sylvia’s contention is that if good people like her don’t contest, then bad people like Violet Sephotho will win uncontested. If Precious wins, she can prevent certain vested interests from building the Great Fun Hotel right next to a cemetery.

Meanwhile, Dr Marang, a respected doctor from Precious’ hometown, and his daughter, Constance, want Precious to take up their case. It seems that the good doctor had been knocked down by a blue car in a hit-and-run accident. The police have failed to discover the identity of the culprit, and Dr Marang wants closure.

Charlie, apprentice mechanic at Mr Maketoni’s garage, who also works as a part-time detective, faces real danger when he asks too many questions about Dr Marang’s accident.

Will the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency solve the mystery? Will Precious win or lose the election? And would that spell the end of the agency? Read the book to find out.

On the face of it, there isn’t one tight plot; more like a string of subplots involving a silent seven-year-old boy living on Sylvia’s Orphan Farm who steals birds’ eggs to Dr Marang who suffers terribly in a hit-and-run accident, from the election to a seat on the local council to the wooing of Queenie-Queenie, a pretty girl, by Charlie, and how Hercules, her bodybuilder of a brother does a fine job of keeping overeager suitors at bay.

There are digressions into Grace Makutsi’s domestic circumstances, her husband and the business he runs, their son and even how well they treat their domestic help.

Despite the plethora of subplots, we have the satisfaction of seeing every one of them gently and resolutely tied up.

The style of writing is such that before long we find ourselves warming to all the characters, even the minor ones. The author even draws our attention to colloquialisms like “late,” which is how the characters refer to deceased people.

It was great to renew my acquaintance with Precious. A traditionally built woman, she has many qualities to recommend her. I was pleased to discover that she had modern views on the importance of boys learning to cook because, of course, they eat. What a simple yet potent argument!

The cases she solves may be simple, but there is nothing simple about Precious. She has a sense of tactfulness that she employs when handling Grace, who certainly tries Precious’ patience even as she sees herself as the person whose patience is being rigorously tested.

Grace is an interesting character. Her stories go off on a tangent. It is amusing to see Grace’s conscientiousness in preventing Fanwell from taking liberties with designations when she was even quicker to promote herself to the position of Joint MD with Precious. She also stood out for her belief in the superior advantages bestowed on her by her education from the Botswana Secretarial College.

We come to know both these women better through their marital relationships and their conversations with their respective husbands.

Fanwell, the only minor character who had no subplot in this book, proved to be endearing even in the bit role he was afforded.

There are some simple truths hidden in the pages. Never, never think that you are justified in doing something wrong just because you are trying to do something right, Precious insists, and hence she refuses to make any promises during her campaigning.

One of her observations is There are some people who smile on the outside when they are not smiling on the inside.

We learn of other homespun wisdom. There are some guests who do not knock.

Strong men do not need to throw their weight around.

Even Grace gets a chance to display her wisdom when she says, There are people who want more than their fair share of tea. This is Botswana and no matter what the complication, tea can make it better.

The omniscient narrator has a faint, very British, and affectionately patronizing attitude towards the characters. It is an attitude that is one-part annoyed, and three-part indulgent. There is an undeniable affection that we sense and imbibe.

It makes Botswana come alive to those of us who’ve never been there and know nothing about it. A smattering of its history come alive, and we become aware, through Precious and the other characters, of the simplicity of its people.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Monday, November 05, 2018


Title: The House Swap
Author: Rebecca Fleet
Publisher: Pamela Dorman books
Pages: 294
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Most things take less effort than you think to keep alive, says a character. But marriage is not one of those things.

The House Swap takes us up close into the marriage of Caroline and Francis, and, by extension, into their lives.
Caroline and Francis swap houses for a short break with an unknown person on a house-swapping website. They have an apartment in the city and are assigned for the stay to a house in the suburbs.

Caroline hopes the stay will give her an opportunity to work on her strained marriage. Just the two of them. Their marriage is in shambles following her unfaithfulness (she had an affair with her colleague, Carl, who was 8 years her junior) and his addiction to prescription medicine (never fully explained). They are both in recovery.

The house they are assigned to is crowded with objects, and with visual and auditory cues that remind her of the time she spent with Carl. They tripwire her into the past, even though she came there to escape those memories. Other than those objects, there are hardly any possessions around the house. It looks unlived in, almost minimalistic.

Before long, Caroline begins to suspect that she is being shadowed and watched. She has a premonitory feeling about the house, and believes that it belongs to someone from her past, someone she is trying to forget, someone who seems to be trying to provoke her and destroy her marriage. Then she meets Amber, a young woman who lives next door, who seems to take an inordinate amount of interest in her. Amber reminds Caroline of herself when she was younger. But there is something suspicious about her.

And all along, Caroline cannot shake off the feeling of dread, of something terrible waiting to happen. Of some way in which a dark secret she has hidden from everyone, something horrible that changed her life, will come out in the open.

The novel is written in dual timelines, in December 2012 while Caroline’s affair is on, and in May 2015, long after the affair is over when Caroline and Francis are trying to rebuild their marriage at the house they have been assigned in the house swap. 

Interspersed with these accounts of Caroline are the first person present tense PoVs of Francis, at both timelines, and the present tense PoV of the stranger who has swapped houses with Caroline, in the present day.

The prologue hints at malice and evil intent. Meaning to be Dirty. Unpleasant. It is written in the first-person point of view of the stranger.

I found the concept of a house swap very intriguing. I don’t think I’d ever be capable of letting a stranger live in my home, while I wasn’t around. Not even if it was truly magazine-worthy, and not the messy, cluttered place it is.

The language is poetic and figurative. I was pleasantly surprised to find anything like it in a thriller.

Caroline tells us that That process of laying my quirks and foibles out for inspection and seeing if they are accepted or not is something you do less as an adult.

She and Francis have veiled, monosyllabic utterances that feel more like crossword clues than conversation.

Caroline describes her husband’s pills which disappear and are restored at an alarming rate as dividing and replenishing like cancerous cells.

The years of a floundering marriage have left Caroline feeling as if Love sits uneasily on me, a worn-out, too-big coat that doesn’t mold itself to me in the way it once did.

She feels like the last clumps of grass and earth grasped at by someone tumbling off a cliff. I know they won’t last. That even as I hold them they’re crumbling into nothing in my hands.

None of the characters really stood out for me, except for Carl. He seems to be more in control of his emotions than any of the others. Nearly all the characters are flawed and deeply complicated, twisted in ways that are hard for us to comprehend.

Francis was the strangest of the lot. He is a therapist, who occasionally counsels couples, and yet he can’t seem to make sense out of his own life.

I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the resolution of the mystery here, which was no more than a 3-star for me. The third star is for the author’s prose.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Title: The Dead House: A Novel
Author: Billy O'Callaghan
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Pages: 224
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan is high on atmosphere and silent menace and manages to keep the tension high right up to the end.

The book is written from the first person past tense point of view of Michael Simmons, an art agent, married to Alison and the father of Hannah. Michael gets pulled into the drama of Maggie Turner, an artist-cum-friend, for whom he cares deeply.

Getting away from an abusive relationship, Maggie buys an old dilapidated house in a scenic locale and spends a fortune, borrowing heavily from Michael, in renovating it. Once done, she invites Michael, an art gallery owner-friend Alison, with whom she wants to set Michael up, and Liz, a poet, for the housewarming. That weekend, Liz brings out an Ouija board, and for the fun of it, summons spirits to get in contact with them. A spirit calling itself The Master asks permission to enter in Irish. Only their Irish language skills being weak, they mistake the question for permission to join.

Slowly the joy leaves Maggie as she lets the house go to seed, living with the stench of death and the real presence of the Master in the house.

Michael and Alison decide to drive down and make one big effort to save her. Will they succeed? Will the evil release its hold on Maggie? Or will it consume all their lives?

This, to me, was horror of the worst kind, the horror of watching a loved one lost forever to something inexplicable rather than just things going bump in the night. This book will really terrify you, once you imagine something as terrible as this happening to someone you care for.

The Dead House is not a typical ghost story. The book ends on an unsettling note. There is a sense of something terrible waiting to happen. The horror of it is like a sword dangling on our heads. We know it is going to fall. The question is when.

When the horror appears to want to take little Hannah into its fold, Michael and Alison realise that their worst nightmare has invaded the present. For us as readers too, this is a disquieting realization. The fact that the author makes no promise of an upcoming sequel in which the horror might be put to rest makes the situation even worse.

Part I shows us Michael in the present, telling us of his friendship with Maggie. Part II takes us to her obsession with the house and the summoning of the spirit. Part III is back in the present, 9 years later.

The physical descriptions of that part of Ireland are hauntingly beautiful, and reading these passages gave me gooseflesh. It’s almost as if the place doesn’t exist on the same plane as the rest of us do. In a city with its crowds and traffic noise, reality is a sheet of thick glass… Out here, just like the ocean, it pulls to tide and current. And, just like the ocean, its surface can be easily broken.

The descriptions give us a glimpse of the generations that have existed, centuries ago, never knowing of other lives. Of places where time stood still, where nothing had changed, where rocks, ocean, sky, wind and rain were the only things that weren’t fleeting.

Michael is a pragmatic man, who comes from a belief system that doesn’t subscribe to anything not of this world. The stains of skepticism are just as hard to scrub away as those of faith. But living through the horror that engulfs Maggie, he changes his mind. We glimpse or experience something that defies explanation and we either accept the stretch in our reality or we choose to turn our heads away.

In a book beset with bad men such as Maggie’s abusive ex-boyfriend Pete and Alison’s ex-husband Laurence who modelled the term ‘selfish bastard’ at professional catwalk level, Michael comes across as an inherently good man.

But even he admits that he could have done more to save Maggie, to prevent the nightmare that happened to her, or even to make some attempt, futile though it may have been, to rescue her. We all think that we’ll walk through walls for the people who matter most to us, that we’ll willingly push ourselves against the muzzle of a gun for them. But we can’t know. Not until the moment arrives.

His experiences give him a new perspective on places that are supposed to be haunted, an explanation that he clings to because the alternative would drive him crazy. People talk all the time about haunted places… But I’m not sure it has much to do with ghosts. I think it just means it’s held tightly by the past in ways that other places aren’t.

We receive no clear answer about what happened to Maggie or to what the Master did to her. We can only imagine how horrible the consequence may have been, given that the reveries summoned to Maggie’s mind during the Ouija session are so deeply disturbing. We are reminded of issues such as mortality and the beyond and what reality is, and how much of the other world presses down on us.

The Prologue seeks to introduce the subject to us in a philosophical vein. By the end of the book, neither Michael nor we have much use for the philosophy. So strong is the sense of terror conjured up.

(I read this book through NetGalley.)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


Title: The Lies We Told
Author: Camilla Way
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 336
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

It’s been a long time since I read a book that I couldn’t wait to pick up and read again, no matter how many interruptions showed up. The Lies We Told was that kind of a book for me. I couldn’t read this book in one sitting, obviously because I no longer have the luxury of switching off the world and reading away. But I found myself returning to this book, every chance that I got. And that’s not something that I can say for many of the thrillers I’ve read in the past.

It was the character of Hannah that nabbed my attention. I haven’t encountered anyone like her within the pages of a book. Outside the pages of a book, I hope never to bump into her.

Beth and Doug Jennings become parents to Hannah after several miscarriages. From the beginning, it seems as if there is something off about her. Hannah lacks empathy and although still a child, shows a predilection towards committing violent actions when her will is thwarted.

Clara Haynes and her boyfriend, Luke Lawson, are quite happy living together when tragedy strikes. Luke disappears from his workplace, and Clara has no idea where he might have gone. Police investigations fail to uncover any clue, and Clara as also Luke’s parents, Rose and Oliver, and his best friend, Mac, are totally worried.

Luke’s disappearance is the second tragedy in the lives of the ultra-perfect Lawson family. Luke’s older sister, Emily, had walked out of their home at age 18, seemingly of her own will, and was never seen again.

Over the next few days, Clara wonders if Luke had truly loved her as much as she loved him. She learns from Mac that Luke had had an affair with a colleague. She also learns through her own investigations that he wasn’t the perfect gentleman she thought he was, that he had not treated the previous women in his life well. On sifting his mail for clues into his disappearance, she finds over 500 threatening mails from a woman.

Even as Clara becomes determined to do everything in her power to find Luke, for his parents’ sake, if not her own, she wonders if Luke will ever be found. And we readers wonder what are the secrets that Beth and Doug are hiding.

The book is written in the first person past tense point of view of Beth Jennings in Cambridgeshire in 1986, and the third person past tense point of view of Clara Haynes in London in 2017. Both points of view show up in alternate chapters.

From the beginning, it becomes evident that Beth’s account is being written not in the here and now, but with Beth looking back. These chapters have the air of a confession, as if there were something that Beth needed to come clean with.

Beth’s account, in particular, was so good, that I found myself being more than a little afraid of Hannah. I had similar feelings about Alison, Clara’s neighbor.

The viewpoints of Beth and Clara were so utterly distinct, showcasing the author’s skill. Even halfway through the book, I was unable to see how the two narratives were connected. Nor could I gain any clue through an attempt to tally the timelines.

There were many moments that raised the book for me above the level of a thriller. When Amy, Luke’s first serious girlfriend, tells Clara about how Luke and later her husband treated her, she says, Funny…how it’s always us women who are left to deal with the shit men leave behind.

We are also reminded about people who have difficult children, about how some men have a sense of entitlement, how they force themselves upon women and then dump them later.

Clara came across as naïve, getting into situations she could have avoided if she had only used her common sense. One thing I shall never understand is why characters in thrillers, particularly women, will drink heavily, especially when they’re alone, feeling vulnerable and in danger?

Clara’s idolising of Luke tells us of the tendency to place those we love on a pedestal, disregarding their faults. It was a little tedious to see her so enamoured with Luke’s parents that she just couldn’t fault them for anything. In contrast, we get to see almost nothing about her own folks.

Mac provided good support to Clara in her efforts to uncover the truth behind Luke’s disappearance. Tom was one character that deserved a little more space. We don’t get to know much about what happened to his character at the end of the book.

I also felt that this book could have made a bigger impact if it had ended two chapters earlier. But then the author would have missed the chance to announce a sequel, which, I must admit, I’m more than a little intrigued by.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Friday, September 28, 2018

Book Review: Bird by Bird and a BIG REVEAL

Title: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Author: Anne Lamott
Publisher: Anchor
Pages: 237
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

There were so many things I could relate to in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott: the thrill of seeing one’s name in print, of claiming ownership through a byline. Of the thrill of writing on days when it seems effortless, and the agony of days when the scratched words make you want to tear your hair out.

She doesn’t tell you that it’s easy to be a writer or even that the rewards can make up for the drudgery. The simple act of sitting down to write and the 1001 thoughts that conspire to get in the way.

The book, she tells us, consists of almost everything that she talks about in her writing classes. The whole is tied together with a thread of quiet humour that makes you chuckle out loud. The whole thing is peppered with charming personal stories and anecdotes from films and books, as well as real-life experiences.

In Part One – Writing, she tells us about the importance of shitty first drafts and the problem of seeking perfectionism. How when you write shitty first drafts, you find yourself honing one thing, and then when you zoom out, slowly you begin to notice other things around it. How in the writing of one thing, you will remember other things that weren’t in your mind, when you started.

She describes the act of character and plot development, how they must both drive the story forward. You, as the writer, must watch like a mute spectator as your characters come alive. Here she passes on a formula, originally defined by writer Alice Adams, who talks of ABDCE, namely, Action, Background, Development, Climax, Ending. She also touches upon Dialogue, which I personally find the most challenging.

In Part Two – The Writing Frame of Mind, she stays that there must be something at the centre of your story, something about which you care passionately, which must shine through. Our deepest beliefs must drive our writing.

In a delightful reference to an old Mel Brooks film, she reminds us to “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” It is a reminder to us to shut down our rational mind, and listen to our intuition which will lead us on in a far truer and more satisfying manner.

In Part Three – Help Along the Way, we learn about the importance of writing down every little tidbit we consider important on index cards. I’ve learned this the hard way, and vouch for this bit of advice. Everything I have written down, I still have; everything I have trusted to memory, I have forgotten.

She also tells us about the importance of writing groups, and of being able to rely on a few individuals who we can trust with our shitty first drafts, and of how to counter writer’s block.

In Part Four – Publication – and Other Reasons to Write, she tells us about Finding Your Voice, Giving, Publication, how it is not the end, but a beginning, a starting again on the blank page.

And then in Part Five – The Last Class, she tells us that as writers, we must keep writing.

When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

There’s so much that you would like to quote:

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.

Writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained.

A big heart is both a clunky and a delicate thing; it doesn’t protect itself and it doesn’t hide. It stands out, like a baby’s fontanel, where you can see the soul pulse through.

The style of this book has so many memoir-like elements mixed within the book on writing that by the end of it, I thought that Sam, her little son, was a pretty cool little guy, and was saddened at the death of Pam, her closest friend.

So much of the advice while being pertinent to writing is just as relevant to life. As when she tells us about how her dying friend, Pam, taught her how to live better, told her that she didn’t have time enough to waste on unnecessary things. Her response, “Okay, hmmm, let’s see. Dying tomorrow. What should I do today?” can help us not only write better, but also live better.

And how on days when the muse just won’t oblige, you write unrelated stuff, stuff from your old memories, while you wait for my unconscious to open a door and beckon. That’s when the party starts, as any writer who has experienced the beckoning can vouch for.

I want to end this review with one of my favourite quotes from the book: This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away.

It is a belief that has consumed me too.

And that is why the review of this delightful book is as good a time and place as any to make my big announcement.

With the last i being dotted and the last t crossed, I am now working towards self-publishing my first Book. It's a book that has grown out of this blog. A dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember, and it’s taken a long, long time to mature.

I hope for your prayers as I take my fledgling steps towards achieving my dream.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Book Review: BAD

Title: Bad
Author: Chloe Esposito
Publisher: Dutton Books
Pages: 384
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Bad is book 2 of a trilogy that begins with Mad and ends with Dangerous to Know. All three are apt descriptions of Alvina “Alvie” Knightly who is whacko, with no sense of morals, and you’d better hope you don’t ram into her, because there’s no telling what she’ll end up doing.

The prologue, helpfully called Disclaimer by the narrator, Alvie, is where she brings us up to speed on what happened in the first book, and simply absolves herself of guilt. Basically, what we learn is that Beth, her twin sister, invited her over to her palatial house in Sicily, and told her to pretend to be Beth for just one night, so she, Beth, could spend the night with her lover, Salvatore.  But then the two sisters fought and Beth fell into the swimming pool and drowned.

That one accidental death leads to Alvie killing Beth’s underworld don of a husband, Ambrogio, who was also Alvie’s ex, and then Salvatore. And then she sleeps with one of Ambrogio’s hitmen, Nino. They commit a heist together, but then Nino ups and leaves with the money, 2 million euros, and a Lamborghini, leaving Alvie alone in a hotel room, high and dry and penniless.

And all this before this book has even properly begun.
Thus begins Alvie’s second first-person recounting of her deceit and deception. She tells us that she will do whatever it takes to torment and kill Nino in a supreme act of revenge. But first she might just sleep with him. Because that’s the kind of crazy she is.

Meanwhile, Alvie is now on the run, except that the police think that the body they have found is hers, and that Beth is absconding. So Alvie has to pretend to be Beth, while pursuing her plan of revenge. 

There’s an added challenge. Ambrosio’s other key hitman, Domenico, thinks Beth killed his boss, and so he wants some sweet revenge of his own. So Alvie finds herself in the happy situation of being chased by both cops and mobsters alike.

There’s yet another challenge. She will be able to kill Nino, only if he doesn’t kill her first. Which seems more likely.

Nino, always a few steps ahead, despite the app she installed to track his phone, sends her a message that if she manages to catch him, they just might work together.

How many soups will she get into before she succeeds in avenging herself? You can read the book to find out, if you think you can stomach it.

The chapters are helpfully named The Traitor, The Thief, The Puppy, The Nun, The Hooker, The Cop, and The One, the series of characters she meets along her quest to kill Nino. None of these characters are crucial to Alvie’s story, though they do assume a larger-than-life aura for a while.

Nino himself leads her along on a merry chase that takes her to Romania and back to Italy.

The events of this book happen pretty quickly, in the space of just a week, though the flashbacks date back to Alvie’s childhood.

Alvie is quite cool about the kind of person she is. She admits that she has shoplifted, and committed arson and embezzlement. But she was never a killer. That was a talent she discovered in Book 1, Mad.

Of course, she has her own problems. Her own mother, Mavis, has always loved her twin, Beth, much more than her.

I found Alvie sociopathic, and totally demented. She has a weakness for Prada merchandise and is rather superficial in a number of ways, not to mention the fact that she is absolutely amoral and is willing to indulge in any number of dubious pursuits, as long as they promise pleasure.

She is a classic sociopath. She doesn’t think about situations properly. In fact, she even hears the voice of her dead twin in her head. She often makes stupid decisions. At one point, she tries to convince a woman to sell her little dog, and steals it when the woman refuses. When the dog goes poo-poo in her Prada bag, she changes her mind about the dog.

But what makes her endearing is the fact that she gets into more trouble than she ends up dishing out. Not good if you’re planning on becoming an assassin in the long term, which is what she aspires to be.

She is terribly accident prone, and the most ridiculous of things keep knocking her down. For instance, she goes to a tattoo artist to get “Die, Nino” tattooed on her butt of all the places. The artist ends up tattooing “Die, Nemo,” which is just as well because that spelling mistake might just save her life at some point.

She does have a great sense of humour though.

The reason I’m rambling on so much about Alvie, instead of discussing the plot at all, is because the book is all Alvie. Every irrational decision of hers, every stupid, unthinking act, is magnified, affecting random, innocent people who just happen to be walking by, but also wreaking havoc upon her life.

I thought Alvie was fun, but there were a lot of elements in the book that I found OTT and distasteful. There is a lot of sex, a lot of it unnecessary, drinking, substance abuse and violence, all in a day’s work for Alvie who finds herself warming to her new situation and to the sense of wanton power it fills her with.

What Bad has going for it, apart from the aptly-named Bad Alvie, is the plot; minor plot elements that we’ve nearly forgotten about pop up to prove their usefulness when you least expect them to.

I’m glad I plodded through the book though. The ending was worth the plodding.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Wednesday, July 25, 2018


Title: The Intermission
Author: Elyssa Friedland
Publisher: Berkley Books
Pages: 368
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The book starts with the Prologue when newly married Jonathan and Cass Coyne predict that they will be happily married for over 50 years. Five years later, in Chapter 1, we see that they have drifted apart. Their sex life has reduced to a bare minimum, and they are going through the motions, barely connecting on any significant level.

The situation comes to a head when Cass, who works in a theatrical ad agency and believes that any play can benefit from an intermission, decides that that mode of treatment can be just as effectively transposed to her marriage.

Bemoaning the loss of the spark between them, Cass proposes an intermission of six months, time apart to save the marriage before they have a baby. Once a month, they will meet to exchange custody of their pet dog, Puddles.

Anxious to make the most of the intermission, Cass leaves for California, as far from Jonathan and their NY home as possible. She hopes to regain control of her life, but in a short while, both she and Jonathan will find their lives taking unexpected turns. Will they find their way back to each other or will the distance between them grow too wide to be spanned? Is Cass about to get more than she bargained for?

The quirky book cover reflects the dynamics of their marriage, sleeping apart, bound only by Puddles, the unifying factor between them. 

The book is divided into three parts, with Act One – Together, Act Two – Intermission, and Act Three – After.

It is written in the third person past tense point of view of both Jonathan and Cass, in alternate chapters. At first it seemed to me that the point of view should have been first person. But then I realized that the author’s omniscient PoV was better since they were not yet ready to come clean with each other. There were plenty of secrets that they were still in denial about. Secrets that they would have to come clean with. Secrets that we already know about thanks to the flashbacks neatly scattered throughout the story.

Like any marriage, theirs begins with noble intentions. Cass tells herself that she will never say no to Jonathan for sex. But then married sex becomes a chore. And the irritations of daily life begin to sap their energy. The act of living with someone with different habits, eccentricities, and a whole different upbringing and background, takes a toll. As anyone who is married learns, not that we love our spouses the less, but that they irritate us the more. And eventually, the love gets tarnished by the constant abrasions.

It got me thinking of the differences we bring to our marriage. How we never reconcile ourselves to them completely. How men and women are different. How each finds the other complicated.

How we are not upfront with each other. Thoughts left unsaid were often weightier than words spoken out loud. Marriage becomes a battleground when niceties feel like expletives.

The burden of expectations weighs heavily. Cass believes that Marriage shouldn’t mean becoming one person, with each spouse swimming inside the other’s private thoughts. No, the best relationships were built like Venn diagrams of two overlapping circles, where the only variable was how big the shared part was and how much remained for the individual.

We come to know of the lies that are a part of every marriage. To be married, you have to be willing to accept certain fictions. And of how parenting and its responsibilities leaves men and women on different pages.

Eventually, spouses begin to keep score. Like an accountant maintaining a ledger of checks and balances.

As outsiders, looking in, we can smile at the chinks in their marriage, particularly if we can relate to them. As insiders, spouses are often too busy trying to claw their way out. 

And so it is that we learn that Jonathan probably has a permanent indentation from biting his tongue. It comes from his tolerating her bad habits, while she is totally vocal about his. His silences, as much as her complaints, lead to resentments.

The Intermission is not just about the marriage of Jonathan and Cass. We also learn more about the marriage of Jonathan’s parents, with his father’s constant affairs; Cass’ mother’s relationships with losers; the marriage of Jemima and Henry Wentworth.

Through the wedding of Jonathan’s youngest brother, Michael and his fiancée, Jordyn, we see how cheesy weddings can be. It’s also a reminder of how over-prepared we are for weddings, and how ill-prepared we are for marriages.

As characters, Jonathan and Cass are opposites not only in upbringing, but in the fact that their meeting years after college is serendipity, or so he thinks, while she knows that she engineered it.

In Jonathan’s words, Cass is the type of woman who requires much work. This we know too. Losing her job after the agency where she works closes down when her boss dies of cancer, Cass begins to overthink, resulting in Death by Detail for us.

Jonathan’s views encapsulate the belief that it doesn’t matter where you whet your appetite, just as long as you come home for dinner. On the other hand, Cass wouldn’t dream of looking at another man while she was married.

During the intermission, Cass makes it clear that they are both free to sleep with whoever they want to. This time, it is Jonathan who finds the thought initially unpalatable.

In the person of Cass, we see women’s tendency to expect men to mind-read, where everything becomes a test where you have to give the right answer. It is indeed exasperating, a habit I’ve tried to outgrow, but it creeps up on me now and again. It wasn’t a trick or a trap or a test. There was no “right” answer.

The six months, spread over 368 pages, felt too long. I could not understand Cass’ constant flip-flops over where their marriage was.

I couldn’t wait for them to end, and by them, I mean the intermission and the pages. In the end, my sympathies were firmly with Jonathan.

At one point, Jonathan feels like a yo-yo.

So did I.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).


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