Friday, December 31, 2021


Title: A Treasury of African American Christmas Stories
Author: Bettye Collier-Thomas
Publisher: Beacon Press
Pages: 248
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is a collection of short stories and narrative poems written by black writers and political activists. The writing in this book forms part of the black literary tradition that flourished after the Civil War in America. This was literature as a form of political and social activism and it brings out the subjugation of black people in America.

I am mostly unfamiliar with the history of African-Americans in the US. Apart from a brief acquaintance that has emerged from the reading of books set in the American South, I know almost nothing of the struggles that black people have faced.

Each of the 4 poems and 18 stories is preceded by a detailed bio of the authors, the greats of black literature. The editor takes the trouble to give us the context and the history, helping us to appreciate the story better.

The Sermon in the Cradle by WEB DuBois sets the story of the Nativity in Benin in Nigeria, rooting the greatest story set in Bethlehem in Nazareth in another place and time. One in which the Baby Jesus continues to be sought by the powerful who seek to do Him harm.

A Carol of Color by Mary Jenness reminds us about how white Western culture has appropriated Jesus for itself, making Him white-skinned and blue-eyed in their own image. It was the imagery I grew up with too. To this day, the majority of churches in India continue to display Western iconography. This poem, though short, was apt.

The Christmas Reunion Down at Martinsville by Augustus M Hodges is a long, narrative poem, set in Kentucky around 1893. The poem introduces us to three generations of a family as they gather for Christmas. We come to know of the joys, struggles and history of Uncle Joe and Aunt Sallie Moore. Their story is emblematic of what African-Americans lived through as slaves, and after being given their freedom. We get a clear picture of the cruelties of the plantation owners and the patrollers they hired to control their slaves.

The Children’s Christmas by Alice Moore Dunbar lets us see Christmas through the eyes of give children who have never known the joys of Christmas. There is Julia, the daughter of an alcoholic, single mother, to whom Santa brings ‘another beatin’. Matilda, Jewish, growing up in an orphanage, knows nothing about Christmas but longs for a doll from Santa. Florence, who doesn’t have warm clothes, thinks Christmas means cold weather. Frank, nursemaid to his baby brother, longs for a toy at Christmas. Hattie is blind and sees nothing of the splendour of Christmas décor.

Christmas Eve Story by Fanny Jackson Coppin is a feel-good story. Two orphans, Maggie and Johnny, from a dirty hovel are adopted by a kind stranger after the death of their mother.

Mollie’s Best Christmas Gift by Mary E Lee shows us what Christmas was for middle-class black children. This story puts Christ back into Christmas at a time when feasting and gift giving had become popular.

A Christmas Story by Carrie Jane Thomas is about little Minnie, who plans to stay up to meet Santa and ends up dreaming about him.

Fanny May’s Christmas by Katherine Davis Tillman introduces us to Fanny May, whose mother is ill. Her father’s salary is low, and it doesn’t look like she will get a gift for Christmas. But of course, her parents and friends pitch in to give her an unforgettable Christmas.

Elsie’s Christmas by Salem Tutt Whitney is another heart warming story about little Elsie, who wants a doll with a pretty brown face, for Christmas. This was a time of reinforcement of racial pride. 

General Washington – A Christmas Story by Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins was a story with a big heart. My heart went out to 10-year-old Buster aka General Washington. I particularly loved the tongue-in-cheek, indulgent tone of the narrator.

The Autobiography of a Dollar Bill by Lelia Plummer helped us understand the plight of impoverished young black street kids through the eyes of a dollar bill.

Mirama’s Christmas Test by Timothy Thomas Fortune shows us how upper-class black women took it upon themselves to improve their lot in life through hard work.

A Christmas Party That Prevented a Split in the Church by Margaret Black is a story of black church women trying to wield autonomy. This story had Jane Austenish overtones.

The Three Men and The Women by Augustus M Hodges, the only author to have a story and a poem included here, was about race relations. This story was dark and brought up the reality of lynching and the smug superiority that condoned and encouraged it.

It Came To Pass – A Christmas Story by Bruce L Reynolds was a sweet story about a miracle healing.

A Christmas Journey by Louis Lorenzo Redding was the complete opposite, ending on a dismal note, out of place with Christmas.

Uncle US Santa Claus by James Conway Jackson was a poem that demanded from the government the same rights and freedom to exist and thrive enjoyed by white people for the black people.

The Devil Spends Christmas Eve in Dixie by Andrew Dobson talks about the meaninglessness of Christmas rituals, and the mindless gaiety that it represents today, particularly when so much hate abounds in the form of lynching. This one is just as relevant in today’s time. This poem was hard-hitting.

In One Christmas Eve by Langston Hughes, a little boy is disillusioned and frightened when he learns that Santa Claus is just an old, white man.

Santa Claus is A White Man by John Henrik Clarke uses the same theme, but works out a darker ending. Once again, a little boy discovers that the myth of Santa Claus is a farce. Only this time, the child narrowly escapes a dire fate.

Merry Christmas Eve by Adele Hamlin is the beginning of a sweet romance.

White Christmas by Valena Minor Williams is also about Santa Claus, but brings in hope that things could be better for the little protagonist.

All in all, certainly a collection of stories that touched my heart. 

(I read this book on Edelweiss. Thank you to the author, the publisher and Edelweiss.) 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021


Title: Poison Orchids

Author: Sarah A Denzil and Anni Taylor
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services (Self-published)
Pages: 428
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Psychologist Megan Arlotti is appointed to work with two 19-year-old backpackers, British Hayley and Australian Gemma who escaped from the clutches of Rodney White, a man who had held them in captivity and planned to kill them. The girls are found by a truck driver who fights White and saves them.

But the danger isn’t past. The stories of the two girls don’t match. Senior detective Bronwen McKay and Arlotti question the girls, only to find two completely different stories about what occurred over the last three months. There are unanswered questions relating to the clean white dresses worn by the girls on the night of their escape.

Desperate and out of money, the two sought work at a mango farm whose owner, Tate Llewellyn, a wealthy chemist, welcomed them. Life in the farm is idyllic, peaceful and beautiful with fruit-picking, campfires and waterfalls. And then suddenly it isn’t.

Are the girls hiding a secret?


The books is written from the third person omniscient point of view of multiple characters, in the past tense. The book is disturbing in its content and tones. There are references to sexual assault.

Part II takes us back three months when Hayley and Gemma first met. We get to experience their stories firsthand. It is good to see the sudden and then gradual manner in which the friendship grows.

This part was almost like a young adult novel. We see youngsters getting together, the backpacker culture, forming new relationships, and jealousies arising out of perceptions of closeness with the handsome Tate, benign and patronising, at the centre of it all. The man seems to be a good employer, working them hard but paying them well too and giving them a good life. Or so it seems. A few privileged people are allowed access into his inner chambers where they can view his prize orchids. It’s a great life. But then paradise turns ugly.

Part III brings us back to the present.

The plot was good and the pace was right, but stylistically there was room for improvements. In Bronwen’s PoV, one para talked about Joe, her partner’s sloppy habits and then the next shifted to Rodney’s house and the change is abrupt.

The writing was good. I got gooseflesh when Hayley recalled the memories of the cold place.

The author brings up stuff about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the fallible nature of memory, how they can alter under influence.

I also liked the manner in which the authors re-created Australia for us. Its heat, its natural beauty. The descriptions flow smoothly.

The book ends on a frightening note. These two authors are definitely on my To-Read list from now on.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021


Title: The Sneezing Christmas Tree
Author: Aaron Kerr
Publisher: Self-published
Pages: 40
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Alice, her younger brother, Tommy, and their parents are out looking for their perfect Christmas tree. After a long search, they finally find a tree they all like, and Tommy decides to christen the tree, Emily. They bring Emily home, thinking that she’s a perfectly normal tree, and then the sneezing begins.

The book is written in the first person PoV of Alice. The pages are peppered with beautiful illustrations. I read this book two days before Christmas and got my kids to read it too. I knew just as soon as I began reading it that it had the potential to be a story that my kids would love.

There are lessons for little ones about not keeping secrets from our parents, as also about seeing trees as living beings who bring untold wealth to our world, the importance of creating happy memories for ourselves and of finding one’s purpose in life.

The best part about this book is that it puts Jesus Christ firmly at the heart of Christmas.

The entire story is tied up with humour, as in the camouflage pajamas, and warmth. The Sneezing Christmas Tree is a special treat for all ages.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021


Title: Three More Months

Author: Sarah Echavarre
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Pages: 319
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐


Chloe Howard is a busy woman. Her work, as pharmacy residency program director at a medical centre, takes up all her time, leaving her unable to make time for her mother, Mabel, and younger brother, Andy. Her mother constantly berates her for over-working, and Chloe agrees to take time off work and visit her mother.

But the night before the visit, Mabel suffers a cardiac arrest. By the time, Chloe gets home in the early hours of May 7, Mabel is dead. Chloe and Andy give way to grief, but for Chloe, the grief is compounded by guilt, at not having spent more time with her mother.

Two days before the funeral, Chloe wakes up to find her mother alive and well. What’s more, it’s March 30. Grateful for the second chance she has, Chloe decides to spend more time with her mother, to do more things as a family.

Her therapist thinks the change in the timeline is merely Chloe’s worst fears manifesting themselves and appearing real. But Chloe knows she must use the time to heal the rift between her mother and her sister, and work on her mother’s health issues. She plans ways to get her mom to eat healthier, and spend more time in meditation and exercise.

The second chance is a lifesaver, offering many people the chance to make good. But Chloe, and we, can’t help waiting for the shoe to drop. Something’s gotta give, and it does, in a small well-executed turn of events.

The book is written in the first person present tense PoV of Chloe.
Mabel is a Filipino immigrant, so there is a smattering of Ilocano words and phrases throughout the book, besides the mention of various foods from their cuisine. There was only one error here. Chloe’s aunt, a staunch Catholic, asks Chloe about Mabel, whether the latter used to “accept” Communion. The right word is “receive.”

There’s far too much back story in the first chapter. I almost gave up reading. For instance, Chloe’s best friend, Julianne, is described as having shoulder-length light-blonde hair and normally pale-pink lips shellacked with ruby-red lipstick. Then her mother’s lips are described as normally shellacked in bright-red lipstick. Again, mom’s hair is shoulder-length raven-hued hair. For some strange reason, the author kept describing the hair of various minor characters. These details did nothing but add to the word count. 

In another instance, the narrator over-explains what her mother’s perfume means to her. After her sudden death, the perfume is comfort and torment all at once to the daughter. The phrase hits home and needs no explanation, but Chloe goes on to tell us exactly why it brings both comfort and torment, thereby nullifying the effect achieved by the phrase.

There was a lot of repetition in the dialogue and characters told each other things they ought to have known. The writing could have been better style-wise, but the emotions that the author highlighted were relatable.

I could feel the pain of Chloe at the loss of the woman who had raised her singlehandedly after her deadbeat dad gave in to an alcohol addiction and abandoned the family.

The characters were all likeable. It was nice to see the bond between Mabel, Chloe and Andy, and to see Andy’s girlfriend, Hannah, and Chloe’s best friend, Julianne, pulled into the loving embrace of this family.

This book would have been better if the middle portion had been cut down. There is too much detail about Chloe's efforts to help her mom get healthy.

 (I read this book on NetGalley. Thank you to the author, the publisher and NetGalley.) 

Wednesday, December 15, 2021


Title: The New Friends

Author: Daniel Hurst
Publisher: Inkubator Books
Pages: 258
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐


The Prologue warns us about a couple’s new friends who turn out to betray them in the worst way.

British couple Becky and Jamie, who’ve been married for ten years, go off on a short budget holiday in the off-season to Spain. There they meet fellow Brits, Phil and Mel, who live a charming lifestyle, having retired after making some savvy financial investments. Jamie is intrigued and wants to know more so he and Becky can also set their financial troubles aside and plan for a baby.

Becky and Jamie are working class people who enjoy their lives but hope for better days. They will learn soon that not all friends have your best interests at heart. 

The book, written in the first person present tense PoVs of Becky, Jamie, Mel and Phil, is a quick read.
There are 46 chapters, with the perspective shifting in each chapter from one character to another, moving the story along and keeping us engaged. Unfortunately, each perspective is firmly mired in long narration and indirect speech.

There’s a big lesson here on being wary of scamsters and of get-rich-quick schemes. 

I found Becky and Jamie very naïve. Neither one bothered looking Phil or Mel up on social media, or even asking for their full names, falling for their lines completely. Also, it was odd that Jamie would transfer money to another person rather than opting to invest in stocks in his own name.
I began to warm more to Mel than even to Jamie or Becky. She was in a conflict situation, willing to make a huge change in her life but unable to.

This is the second Daniel Hurst book I’ve read, the first being The Promotion. The style of writing is very similar. Both plots were interesting, but I felt let down by the long passages of indirect narration. Dialogue is brief, and all the action is swallowed up by the indirect narration. Also, none of the characters have surnames, which I find annoying.

The repeated foreshadowing becomes a drone when it comes once too often.

(I read this book on NetGalley. Thank you to the author, the publisher and NetGalley.) 

Friday, December 10, 2021


Title: Nanny Dearest

Author: Flora Collins

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 325
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐


Motherless Sue Keller, having lost her mother to cancer at the age of three, becomes depressed when she loses her father to a cardiac arrest when she is in her mid-twenties. One day, she meets her nanny, Annaliese (Annie) Whittaker, outside church, and they renew their acquaintance.

Having been raised by her father, after the death of her mother, Sue used to feel smothered in that relationship, and has longed for answers. She wants to fill in the gaps in her memories and learn more about her parents. So the sudden appearance of her nanny makes her regress emotionally and she longs for the comfort that Annie once brought to her, even though the memory of those times eludes her now.

Before long, the two are inseparable. Sue’s best friend, Beth, is unhappy with this strange friendship, but Sue rejects her complaint and allows herself to break away from all her previous friendships, and even her job.

Initially, everything is smooth sailing for Sue. Her nightmares are gone, and she sleeps better even without medication. But Beth keeps insisting that there’s something off about Annie.

Before long, Sue is thinking like Annie, taking decisions like her, longing for her approval. Until she comes to know of what Annie has been doing to her little niece and nephew, her sister’s kids, who are her charges. And then she wants out.


The book is written in dual PoVs at two different timelines. So we have the PoV of Sue in the present day and that of Annaliese from May to July 1996. Both accounts use the present tense, a style that always makes the writing more real.

The writing makes us warm to each narrator, inviting us to understand them better. Even so, I thought the writing and the imagery evoked were way better in Annie’s PoV than in Sue’s. This makes Annie more compelling, compared to Sue.


There is a quiet and delicious air of menace about the book. We get the sense of a warning, that there’s going to be trouble.

The book takes a long time developing its premise. I didn’t complain, cruising on the prose which was really good. I kept reading, stifling my impatience, telling myself that with writing like this, the development was bound to be worth waiting for. I felt myself carried forward by the air of expectancy that the prose created.

And the writing was really good. Silence can be better than words, that it can fill people up with just the right amount of presumptions. A pregnant pause can imply anything.

It’s the oddest sensation, walking through these halls, like I’m exploring the body of a stranger who has a loved one’s donated organs.

The little truths dropped simply.

Part of the privilege of being rich is luxuriating in oneself.


Annie’s PoV didn’t shy away from talking about things we rarely see in fiction: narration around excretion, vomiting, sickness, euthanasia and death, things that might seem off-putting. The description of a miscarriage is given: There was the red, the viscous clotted balls the devil had taken from her as it exited, dangling scraps of flesh stuck in its fangs.


But beyond a point, I lost interest. The twist came at the 64 percent mark, but without the excitement I hoped for. The wait had been for nothing.

Sue’s PoV was repetitive; the bits about working from home after her dad’s death were told to us several times. She claimed to have a bond with Lola and Jordan, but we don’t feel that bond.

For a long time, I thought that the relationship between Sue and Annie was going to turn sexual or at least predatory, but it didn’t.

I didn’t really like Sue or Annie. The fact that Sue wanted a maternal bond with her nanny, at her age too, seemed odd. In fact, none of the characters were likeable at all, except for Beth and Gavin, Sue’s boyfriend, to an extent for their willingness to support her.

There is love in the Keller family, but it doesn’t get a chance to bloom. It would have been nice to see more of Sue with her parents.

There were themes relating to grief, the loss of a spouse or a parent, or an unborn child that could have been developed. The relationships we lose and how we try to fill the holes left behind. But these themes weren’t dealt with at all.

The resolution took too long. And one major plot point was left unaddressed. A faster pace would have helped. Also, if Sue had found herself in more danger. Readers want to see characters get in trouble, and get out of it. But Annie, after showing off her evil side in a highly charged scene in which a poor cat is tortured and killed for no reason at all, doesn’t do anything by way of challenging Sue.

Most of all, I didn’t like the way the book ended. It was utterly bizarre. The animal abuse wasn’t mentioned at all. And the big reveal is told to us earlier on, so when Sue gets to know of it, it’s totally anti-climactic for us.

(I read this book on NetGalley. Thank you to the author, the publisher and NetGalley.) 

Friday, December 03, 2021


Title: The Library: A Fragile History

Author: Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

Publisher: Profile Books
Pages: 528
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


I’ve always been fascinated by libraries. They are my favourite place to be in. So I was more than eager to read this one.

The Library: A Fragile History takes us on a wonderful journey of discovery, from the earliest collections to the most respected libraries that stand today, against the backdrop of the development of paper and printing, the period of the Renaissance and later, the Reformation.

The book was an eye-opener. I had not imagined the richness and variety in the history of the library across nations and cultures. Nor the remarkable developments in the evolution of the book from handwritten manuscripts, boasting of elegant calligraphy, lavish colours and other decorative flourishes.

It was fascinating to read about the development of paper and how it displaced parchment, which had earlier displaced papyrus, how print enabled the democratisation of libraries and about how the gradual evolution in reading tastes, with the novel and female authorship first disapproved of and then accepted.

Initially, libraries were a treasured part of the monastic life, until members of the nobility began to acquire books. The Franciscans and the Jesuits had a lot to contribute to the proliferation of books. In fact, St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was the first one to take the appointment of a librarian seriously. Earlier, the role of a librarian was not as defined.

The significance of the library meant that for a long time, people believed that libraries should only edify; reading for entertainment was frowned upon, as was romance as a genre.

Detective fiction was the first genre to gain a huge following. The growth of escapist literature opened up the world of books to the general public.

The author tells us about how libraries have evolved over the years, with the cathedral silence of libraries a thing of the past. Libraries in the Renaissance period were convivial social spaces, in which books jostled for attention alongside paintings, sculptures, coins and curiosities. Finally, the emergence of the public library as we know it today, in great part owing to the munificence of philanthropists, and the subscriptions-based library.

Libraries also developed tremendously on the back of the empire and colonisation with hateful ideologies like Nazism also leaving their own stamp on their development.

The continuous evolution of the library reminds us that the news of the death of the library and of the book are greatly exaggerated.

We read about some libraries that I certainly hadn’t given much thought to. The libraries of Jesus’ apostles, the writings that were later canonised in the New Testament.

I was happy to see that the National Library of India, in Kolkata, formerly known as the Imperial Library, found mention in this book.

How easy it is to destroy a library and how hard it is to build one, is the thought that struck me. In fact, the very ideas of the library has faced persecution, with libraries being vandalised and destroyed. I read with a sense of sorrow about the ethnic biblioclasm, the wilful destruction of the public library in Jaffna in Sri Lanka and that of the Bosnian state library in Sarajevo.

In modern times, the popularity of the library has suffered on account of radio, television¸ cinema and the Internet.

For those fascinated with libraries, this book is a trove of information. The research that must have gone into this book is a labour of love. The author tells us about the quantum and nature of famous book collections down the ages. The book is peppered with a few old photographs and illustrations.

My only grouse was that the book had an excessive focus on the US and Europe, besides Australia, New Zealand and Russia. There was virtually nothing about famous libraries in India or Asia, apart from stray references to the library of Mughal Emperor Akbar and the Chinese invention of paper. Nor was there any information about libraries in India before the East India Company arrived on the scene. Canada found no mention, nor did much of South America.

Aside from these misses, the story of The Library is a story of the growth of libraries that is bound to appeal to lovers of books and libraries everywhere.

(I read this book on NetGalley. Thank you to the author, the publisher and NetGalley.) 


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