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).


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