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).

Tuesday, July 24, 2018


Title: Scandal Above Stairs (Kat Holloway Mysteries #2)
Author: Jennifer Ashley
Publisher: Berkley Books
Pages: 320
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Kat Holloway, cook extraordinaire in the home of Lord Rankin, is used to dealing with crises in the kitchen. Since the house is short staffed, Kat has to double up as a cook-cum-housewife, no easy job.

When Lady Cynthia’s friend, Clementina, who is in deep debt as a result of her addiction to gambling, is accused of the theft of priceless artwork from her own home by her husband, Sir Evan Godfrey, Cynthia seeks Kat’s help.

Meanwhile, Kat’s good friend, Daniel McAdam, takes up work at a pawnbroker’s. When a man is found murdered in the shop, Kat is afraid that it is Daniel who has been killed. Until she learns that he has been planted in the pawnshop by the police, and that he is waiting for thugs and thieves to bring him stolen antiquities.

A spate of thefts in several large homes leads Kat and Daniel to suspect that someone big is behind the thefts. As danger gets ever closer, and Cynthia’s own home is broken into, will Kat succeed in finding the culprit and solving the mystery or will danger strike too close to home?

Since this is the second book in its series, readers may already be aware of Kat’s prowess in the kitchen and her ability to solve murder mysteries. For me, this was an initiation into the series, and I thought the book was quite charming. The book is written in the first person past tense account of Kat.

The high-point of the book, more than the murder, was the relationships between the characters. Nearly all the characters have a warm and endearing bond with someone or the other. Notably, I am referring to the relationship between Kat and her daughter, Grace, though their interactions don’t give us much of a clue to Grace’s feelings. In fact, we see more of James, Daniel’s son, than we do of Grace, but then again, that is because Grace doesn’t live with Kat.

Kat and Daniel, Kat and Tess, and Kat and Cynthia are other interesting pairs that lighten up the pages.

The characters are all sweet. Their back stories were handled neatly, without disturbing the flow of the book, or making the introduction jar.

That Kat staunchly guarded her day off, for herself and Tess, the waif sent by Daniel to work as an assistant to Kat, I liked.

There is Elgin Thanos, Daniel’s friend, with whom Cynthia has a slow burner of a romance. There is a similar slow romance going on between Kat and Daniel. Despite swearing off men, after her disastrous marriage with a man she didn’t know was already married, Kat cannot help the feelings she has for Daniel.
Just the way I like it. It’s annoying when the romance element goes overboard.

I liked Lady Cynthia, my namesake. She is sweet and has lots of ‘eccentricities,’ particularly when seen through the lens of her time. She dresses in men’s clothes and enjoys her freedom, going out at night, behaviour expressly forbidden for women.

Tess was another interesting character, and I admired her wit and intelligence, and the slow buildup of respect between her and Kat.

It’s amazing the amount of stuff that Kat manages to cook. For a long time, it seemed as if the cooking overwhelmed the sleuthing. Not that I am complaining. I enjoyed reading about the food portions. All that talk about chopping and hunks of ham and greens nicely crisped, not to mention tarts and pastries, kept me in good humour.

The author does a fine job of evoking the period with its hansoms and flounces in women’s clothing, and its oppressive social mores and modes of behaviour and conduct.

I found the context very interesting. The class differences are firmly in place, and those who try to cross over from one side to another are frowned upon. It is also worth noting that women from the higher classes were, in their own way, subjugated. As Kat says, Wealth and power could cause as much pain and sorrow as it alleviated.

In the book, we see how the few women, who wear men’s clothing, either to experience the freedom men enjoyed or to be free of the restrictive female clothing or because of their orientation, are punished, even institutionalized for defying societal norms.

There is a Christian element in Kat’s belief that God forgives more than people do, and in Daniel’s willingness to forgive the man from whom he has sought vengeance all his life.

The mystery was a good one. And there were lessons on trust and goodness and treating people the way you would want them to treat you, along the way. All served with some delicious food and great descriptions.

There was a bit of action towards the end, that saw all the characters indulge wholeheartedly. I’m always appreciative of a book that honours its female characters as much as its male ones, and gives them space to show off their skills.

I look forward to catching the previous book.

(I received an ARC from First to Read).

Monday, July 23, 2018

Book Review: VOX

Title: Vox
Author: Christina Dalcher
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 336
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The book cover of Vox thrusts its subject right in our faces. We see the word, Vox, Latin for voice, in big, bright red, with the X acting as a muzzle on the mouth of the woman. A Thou Shalt Not Speak.

I was very intrigued by the premise of this book, which takes us into a dystopian America, where the next president to occupy the White House, the one after the first Black President, is hellbent on taking America into the previous century.

In this dystopian scenario, few people have rights. Not women. Nor gays. Only the males do, particularly white males. American women are allowed to speak no more than 100 words over a 24-hour period. A pitiful reduction from the average 16000 words that we speak on an average. Women are made to wear a wrist counter which monitors their word usage. Women who exceed their quota suffer a painful electrical shock, which increases in intensity with each additional word that is spoken.

At school, boys and girls are segregated. Boys are taught Maths and Science; girls are only taught those subjects which will enable them to become good housewives. You need math for that, but not spelling. Not literature. Not a voice. What’s more, schools reward those girls who use the fewest number of words each day.

The girls are educated in a scenario in which teachers talk and students listen. It is a system that no longer encourages debates, discussions or independent thinking. It is part of the attempt to create a Pure Society, where God is at the head of man, and man is at the head of women.

Resenting the manner in which women are treated is Dr Jean McClellan, mother of four and wife of Dr Patrick McClellan, a medical doctor. Jean’s oldest son, Steven, is 16, twins Leo and Sam are 11 and daughter Sonia is 6.
Once a doctor of neurolinguistics, forced into being a housewife, Jean feels increasingly repelled by her husband, for the part he plays in the administration (he is science advisor to the president), for his sense of helplessness. She longs for Dr Lorenzo, her colleague on the prestigious Werniecke project she worked on, with who she had an affair before the counters were slapped on women’s wrists.

When the President’s brother, the one who advises him on important decisions, is injured in an accident that affects his mind, the administration needs Jean’s services, as also those of Lorenzo and Dr Lin, the brilliant doctor who headed the department. Jean agrees to re-join the team, on condition that her own wrist counter and her daughter’s stays off.

But something sinister is afoot. A deeper conspiracy. Jean discovers that theirs is not the only team at work on Prorject Werniecke; two others are on it too. And their goals are far from benign.

To complicate matters, Jean’s personal life is messed up too. She is torn between Patrick and Lorenzo. Who will she choose? Will she even have a choice?

Jean realizes that she is pregnant and the father can only be Lorenzo. Once news gets out, she stands to be publicly shamed and imprisoned, her wrist counter set at 0 per day. Her firstborn, now completely indoctrinated, would not hesitate to turn her in.

Very quickly, the author creates a sense of disquiet, hinting at worse to come. Women don’t have a voice. No access to books or pens or any writing material. No reading. No email accounts. No passports.

Women no longer hold jobs. The male is the head of the family and the bread winner, a fact that strains family budgets and relationships alike. The women must worship at the shrine of male supremacy and their own domesticity.

The premise of the book, written in the first person past tense account of Jean, intrigued me. In today’s scenario, we are all dangerously close to dystopia, with the state using its collective military and political might to stifle public opinion and human rights.

There isn’t much of philosophical rumination, and yet I found myself thinking about several things.

About how a maniac with power could destroy everything.

About the rights we take for granted.

About the judgement and shaming of moral behaviour.

About the right to speech. Not just the right to have an opinion, but the right to even speak.

About the fear of hearing your own children believe and deify something that defies and abuses your deepest beliefs.

About the sin of being apolitical, and consequently being swooped into a world where your refusal to make choices dooms you.

The chapters were short, and the action moved swiftly. The information regarding neurolinguistics didn’t come across as too overwhelming or excessive. It was seamlessly woven through and toned down appropriately for a lay audience.

The characters were all well fleshed out, except for Jean’s twin sons. They received so little space that one scarcely got a chance to get to know them at all.

The women of this book however have all thrived under the benevolent gaze of the author. They are all strong and feisty, defiantly so in a book in which the establishment goes all out to muffle their voices. Not just Jean, Lin, Jackie, Jean’s old college friend who eschewed comfortable campus life for a life of struggle and activism, and even Olivia, Jean’s neighbor, who once totally accepted the doctrine of Purity, but subsequently defies the establishment when her daughter is arrested and shown no mercy. All these women show that they are the kinds to make things happen.

I felt a sense of sharp pain and sadness at the plight of Olivia. Her total acceptance of the new doctrine saves neither her nor her daughter.

My only grouse was that the last few chapters were rushed. I wasn’t too clear about what was going on. The fact that our first person heroine isn’t present at the scene and she comes to know of what happened later makes for a discordant awareness on our part.

Also, the fact that Jean is so blasé about the fact that she is pregnant was odd. If she was at all affected, it was only with the thought that she might be punished for her decision. She doesn’t seem to think about how her pregnancy would be viewed by her husband. Their whole romance didn’t strike me as being so raw and passionate as Jean seemed to think it was.

These two issues spoiled the book for me, and I wish the author had taken care of them.  

Other than these, I’d certainly recommend the book for the issues it forces you to think of. 

(I received an ARC from First to Read).


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