Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book Review: THE CHALK MAN

Title: The Chalk Man
Author: CJ Tudor
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Pages: 280
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor was truly an edge-of-the-seat thriller. The revelations kept popping right up to the last page. The author kept us peeling layer after layer. There was no respite at all. Some of the layers were so closely entwined that it was hard to tell where one ended and another began.

A girl’s body, minus the head, is found in the deep woods. Despite efforts, the mystery of who killed her remains unresolved, because of the missing head.

The story begins in summer in 1986. Eddie “Munster” Adams, and his friends, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo and Nicky are at the fair. An accident at the Waltzer ride brings Eddie face-to-face with Mr Halloran, an English teacher at his school, and Elisa, a girl he thinks of Waltzer Girl, because she suffers a terrible accident at the Waltzer ride.

When Fat Gav receives a tub of coloured chalk as a gift on his 12th birthday, the friends each take home chalks of a particular colour and use it to leave messages for each other.

And then one day the chalk figures appear on their own, directing them to the woods where they find the body of a young girl.

Meanwhile, Sean Cooper, the older brother of Mickey, who used to bully Eddie, turns up dead in the river, and Eddie begins to have nightmares. Before long, Eddie begins to see white chalk figures everywhere, figures filled with menace. Are they real? Or spillovers from his nightmares?

Sean’s death causes Mickey to drift apart from his friends. Nicky leaves town with her estranged mother. 

Years later, in 2016, Mickey returns, wanting Eddie to collaborate with him on a book he wants to publish on the murder that had taken place 30 years ago. Mickey claims that he knows who killed the girl. And then he ends up dead. Police find a paper with a hangman drawn on it, and a piece of chalk in his possession. A replica of the paper that has been sent to him. Eddie wonders if the nightmares will start anew.

The story is written mostly in the first person past tense of Eddie in 1986 and present tense point of view in 2016. The two timelines are presented in alternate chapters.

The plot of the story is revealed very slowly. The disclosure itself comes so slowly that you might almost miss its significance if you aren’t paying attention.

Halfway through the book, I found myself still gingerly feeling my way through, wondering who was the girl whose body had been found, why the religious good didn’t seem so, and why the godless, denounced as evil by the religious, seemed to fumble on. Were the good completely good, and the bad completely bad?

For the child, Eddie, it is all confusing. His mother’s clinic conducts abortions, which are denounced by the anti-abortionists, but the protestors, speaking on the side of the good, are violent and vicious.

Eddie is a complicated character. As a child, he likes to collect things worth collecting and things that he thinks no one will miss. A habit he takes into adulthood.

Eddie has a lopsided worldview that does make sense. Often, what comes with age is not wisdom but intolerance.

What shapes us is not always our achievements but our omissions. Not lies; simply the truths we don’t tell.

And That’s how it is when you’re kids. You can let things go. It gets harder as you get older.

Kids’ worries are bigger because we’re smaller.

Being an adult is only an illusion. When it comes down to it I’m not sure any of us ever really grow up. We simply grow taller and hairier. ... Beneath the veneer of adulthood, beneath the layers of experience we accrue as the years march stoically onwards, we are all still children, with scraped knees and snotty noses, who need our parents. . . and our friends.

Your world shrinks as you grow older. You become Gulliver in your very own Lilliput.

Eddie’s humour also is subtle but strong. When he tells the lodge receptionist about Mickey losing his key card, he says, I wait for the significance of this to dawn. Moss grows around my feet. Glaciers form and melt.

Having had a beloved grandmother and aunts and uncles succumb to Alzheimer’s Disease, I could sense Eddie’s pain when he speaks about his father, a freelance writer, suffering from Alzheimer’s. He says, When the illness started to eat away at his mind, the first thing it swallowed was the thing he loved the most. His words.

Of Gwen, Hoppo’s mum, who also suffers from dementia, Thin, I think, that fabric between realities. Maybe minds aren’t lost.  Maybe they just slip through and find a different place to wander.

He also talks about First losing the objects, then losing the names for the objects. It’s my biggest worry too.

In fact, that was the bit I could relate to. I do a lot of crosswords and read voraciously, hoping to keep my mind sharp, hoping to keep the fear at bay.

Mr Halloran, nicknamed Mr Chalkman by the kids at school, is Eddie’s bogeyman. He is also his English teacher. Being an albino, Mr Halloran’s appearance causes people to look at him strangely. His words to Eddie are, Karma. What you sow, you reap. You do bad things and they’ll come back eventually and bite you on the backside.

For a debut, this one is straight-out fabulous. My mind is still spinning. I can’t wait for her next one.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Book Review: LOOK FOR ME (Detective DD Warren #9)

Title: Look For Me (Detective DD Warren #9)
Author: Lisa Gardner
Publisher: Dutton
Pages: 400
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The most beautiful thing about Look For Me by Lisa Gardner is the fact that the overwhelming emotion that assails one after reading this book is love. It is hard to imagine, considering the fact that the realization of that love emerges out of deep sadness and tragedy.

In the Prologue, we are introduced to Sarah. Her life hasn’t been the same since she and her three roommates were brutally attacked by a killer. She alone survived. One year later, Flora Dane, herself a survivor of a nightmare of 472 days in the captivity of a monster named Jacob Ness, barges into her life, offering to help Sarah manage her fear. 

Flora has started a support group to help other survivors of trauma. She and Sarah decide to look for Roxanna (or Roxy) Baez, the sole survivor after her entire family is shot to death..

The heroine of the series is Sergeant DD Warren. She is called to a home in which single mom Juanita Baez, her son, Manny Baez, aged nine, and daughter, Lola Baez, aged thirteen, and the mother’s boyfriend Charlie Boyd, have been found killed. A 16-year-old daughter Roxy Baez, who was out walking the families two elderly spaniels at the time, is the only one to survive the carnage.

The police are unsure about whether Roxy has been abducted or if she has killed her family and escaped. But Flora believes she is blameless.

And then there is another shooting. Hector Alvalos, Manny’s father, is shot at. And a girl, matching Roxy’s description, is spotted running away from the scene.

Both DD and Flora conduct their own investigations parallelly. At first they work independently, until the shooting at Hector causes DD to allow Flora to tag along. Both women are convinced that the key to the mystery lies in the foster home to which Roxy and Lola were forcibly moved after the state declared their mother, an alcoholic then, as being unfit to raise her children. Subsequently, Juanita cleaned up her act and regained custody of her children. But the nightmare continues to haunt the girls.

Will DD and Flora solve the mystery before another life is taken?

The story is written in the third person past tense point of view of DD, the first person past tense point of view of Flora and the PoV of Roxy which comes to us in the form of an essay, written in 8 long chapters, that she submitted at school. The essay, on What is a Perfect Family?, is the key to understanding what Roxy was going through.

Even when DD and Flora start collaborating, their PoVs continue to show up in alternate chapters. And that helped the pace of the book.

Flora’s PoV brings out the angst that survivors never manage to overcome. We come to know of the misery they live every day of their lives, as they are tortured by the recurring question of why they didn’t try harder to escape, of whether it was their fault somehow.

What keeps this book going is the surfeit of strong women characters, both major and minor. Each of them have strong personalities, and they take decisions and actions that propel the story forward.

While I liked both DD and Flora, I found the latter more appealing. She has her vulnerabilities and her quirks, and yet she was reaching beyond herself to help others. 

I found Flora very authentic. Her efforts to do something to keep the nightmares and trauma at bay were very heartening. She made the psychological experience of an abducted person come alive.

Of course, I did wonder how she managed to finance herself. There is a vague mention of a job she holds, but we never see her actually going to work.

I also appreciated DD’s single-minded focus, often at the cost of family time. DD doesn’t trust Flora’s methods (the sarcastic flip-flop in their conversations was fun), but there is a measure of respect she has for Flora that is undeniable.

I felt sorry for Juanita who proved herself capable of learning from her mistakes and working towards a happy ending for her children.

But the woman who carries this book on her frail shoulders is undoubtedly Roxy. Driven by fierce love for her family, she is the parent for her siblings when her mother and her boyfriend give in to their addictions. She and Lola both take great risks and subject themselves to tremendous hardships and strain, to protect the other.

Unfortunately, for Lola, that is not enough, and for a while, she gives in to hatred and resentment. But love does triumph, even in the midst of tragedy. That is what we learn from both girls, and how they are acted when it mattered the most.

Mike Davis, the only friend Roxy has, also redeems himself in a beautiful way.

The writing simply excels itself in Roxy’s essays. These are her first-person accounts which give us a peek into what she is feeling. The trauma of kids torn away from their families and siblings and forced into foster homes, where conditions are often abysmal, is well reflected in the narrative. Sample this:

A perfect family doesn’t just happen. A perfect family has to be made. Mistakes. Regret. Repair. You have to work at it.

Where are those perfect families…The ones we’re most likely to admire are simply the ones with the best-kept secrets….The real perfect families, they have warts and bruises and scars…A perfect family, I think, is one that’s learned how to forgive.

When it comes to the beauty of the prose, Flora’s PoV too has its share of gems worth quoting.

Bad people don’t want to deal with the powerful…They prey on the weak.

It takes a villain to make a hero.

The only thing that I found out of place was the fact that the author chose to give us Sarah’s backstory in the Prologue. The story of the multiple murders of Roxy’s family would have made far greater sense, since the book is about these murders and the investigation into them. 

Prologues aren’t supposed to pique reader interest by feeding us something sensational. They should invite us to read by giving us a hint of what is to follow, something crucial that will only prove its significance to us on hindsight.

The book causes us to reflect on a range of pressing social issues such as alcoholism, the foster care system, broken families, how parental irresponsibility inflicts tragic consequences on the lives of innocent children, even babies, the harmful effects of drugs, guns and violence, and how the odds are stacked against so many, for no fault of theirs.

Ultimately, Look For Me is a beautiful book that manages to wrest beauty and courage and love from the brink of despairing circumstances, and for that alone, this book deserves its readers. 

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Monday, January 08, 2018


Title: The Tree Bears Witness
Author: Sharath Komarraju
Publisher: Westland
Pages: 250
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

We Indians are quite familiar with the Akbar and Birbal stories where Birbal’s wit and intelligence thrived under Akbar’s munificence.

In The Tree Bears Witness, Birbal is called upon to do a spot of sleuthing when Sujjamal, the brother of Hira Kunwari, who is the princess we remember today as Jodhabai, is found stabbed to death in the royal garden. 

Azgher Abbasi, on the verge of retirement, and greenhorn Rashid were the only two guards on duty at the time. At first Azgher believes that Sujjamal killed himself, while Rashid thinks he was killed by an invisible spirit. Later, a heavy cane turns up with a note stating that it was the one used to kill Sujjamal.

Akbar entrusts Birbal with the task of discovering the identity of the killer within two days. Should he fail, Azgher will hang for the crime. It is up to Birbal to find the killer, no mean task in a kingdom rife with intrigue, particularly when, it appears, that Sujjamal’s death is viewed by almost everyone with a sense of relief.

I was completely drawn into the book, anxious to find out how Birbal would solve the murder mystery. The book is tightly plotted, and we find ourselves trying our best to piece clues together. Birbal, whose wit is legendary, soon finds that solving the mystery behind a crime is not easy.

In stories and comics, one always had the impression that Akbar was aged and Birbal was young. But here Akbar is a youth aged 21, and Birbal has a full mop of grey-black hair. Also, Birbal has had a colourful past, having been a priest by day and a robber by night in his youth.

The author captures well the banter between Akbar and Birbal. We also get to see ample evidence of the fact that Birbal was a man of considerable wit and a master of the art of riposte.

The evocation of the period was well done, with not a note out of place. I commend the author for his ability to build the right mood. One feels oneself transported to the Mughal era. It was quite interesting to read about the far-from-modern methods of autopsy that the body is subjected to.

The characters are all well drawn, and appear real, even the minor ones. Azgher, in particular, stood out for his keen intelligence and intuition.

Through the person of Hira, the book makes fun of the incredible stories of valour associated with kings of that era, reminding us that history is but a story.

Birbal has the ability to observe the problem closely, refusing to be distracted by anything but the facts. In his own words, I need only the bare essentials… Sometimes too much information is useless.

Birbal is not a neutral observer. He is convinced of Azgher’s innocence; the mere suggestion of duplicity on the part of the old man is upsetting. Nor does he enjoy the possibility of being upstaged by Gulbadan Begum, Akbar’s aunt. There was some history here that I missed, as I had not read the first book in the series.

Incidentally, in the tradition of Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Birbal invites all the players to be present at the kitabkhana for the denouement.

The author also succeeds in critiquing the excesses of the time. Even if the rest of Agra was dying of thirst, the fountains and lakes in the Mughal garden always stayed full.

The writing is very assured. The dialogues flow smoothly and the chapters are very well structured.

Some of the lines are worth quoting.

The omniscient narrator observes, Perhaps it is something in the air of Hindustan that makes a man aspire to such silly ideas – the idea that the emperor could be equally fair to all religions. 

It was a line that was both gratifying and distressing. Gratifying because that is the essence of India, and distressing because the very idea seems to be gravely threatened in the country today.

In the same spirit, Raja Bharmal says, Everyone identifies themselves as human in times of peace…Place a sword on a man’s neck and ask him what god he worships. I imagine the answer will be different then.

But there were places that needed keener attention.

In this sentence, It was a lesson of experience that when someone was trying to remember something, the worst thing one could do was to leap up at him and demand what it was, while a part of me cheered this truth which most of us experienced, another part felt that the sentence would have been better phrased as ‘demand to know what it was.’

Also, the right phrase is “Curdle my blood,” not “Curdle me to the bones.”

The blurb on the back of the book tells us that it has been barely a month since the royal wedding, but Mirza, Akbar’s kinsman, says in the book that it is no more than two days, a point confirmed by Raja Bharmal, father of Hira.

I also found it odd that Hira referred to Raja Bharmal as her father and Sujjamal as her brother, even though as the son of her father’s older brother he was actually her cousin. Bhagwant Das was actually her brother, and Man Singh, Bhagwant’s son, is her nephew. 

In yet another place, Man Singh is referred to as her brother, just because they are around the same age and presumably played together as kids. Even the blurb refers to Raja Bharmal and Bhagwant Das as Sujjamal’s uncles and Man Singh as his cousin. Clearly the blurb was written by someone who had not read the book properly.

There were some proofing and grammatical errors strewn through the book in the form of missing spaces, missing full stops, wrong usage of words etc.

Even so, I totally enjoyed this book by Sharath Komarraju, and look forward to reading more from this talented author.

(I read a Kindle edition of this book through Amazon.)


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