Sunday, August 14, 2022

Book Review: THE WOMAN ON THE BENCH



Title: The Woman on the Bench

Author: Eliot Stevens
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

 

Mark, an advertising guy, and Cecelia Hamilton, an art curator, are a happy couple. They are good looking, smart and well-off. No one knows that their marriage is filled with resentment and regrets, after Cecelia’s miscarriage.

An unexpected encounter with a beautiful woman, Alice, causes Mark to fall deeply in love and to consider being unfaithful. Divorce is out of the question, since Cecelia knows a secret that could land Mark in trouble. When Alice suggests killing Cecelia to get her out of the way, Mark agrees, setting the stage for the climax.

 

The book is written in the first person present tense account of Mark. The pacing of the book is perfect. The character of Mark is flawed, complicated and real. There is a lot of internal monologue but it helps us understand Mark better.

The book was well written but I didn’t appreciate the twist at the end of the book. It wasn’t very impactful, after the smooth start and middle.

At the beginning, I got a little mixed up between Mark’s friends, Ed, Clyde and Phil, but gradually the identities of the three men became clear.


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


Book Review: THE GIRL IN THE PHOTO



Title: The Girl in the Photo

Author: Heidi Amsinck
Publisher: Muswell Press
Pages: 384
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

 

The book is set in Copenhagen in March, year unknown, continues for two weeks in March, then jumps time to April.

DI Henrik Jungersen begins work on a case involving the brutal killing of an old woman, Irene Valborg. The body is found two weeks later in an extreme state of decomposition.

Close on the heels of this murder, he comes to know of the brutal killing of another old man, and then of a near-fatal attack on a dementia patient in a care home. In all three instances, he finds the photos of a young teenage girl.

His superiors believe that there is no link between the three cases, but Jungersen strongly believes there is. The case, however, is not the only thing bothering him. He is also suffering on the home front, with his wife having asked him to leave the house on coming to know of his affair with Jensen, a journalist, who is also conducting some parallel investigations of her own.

 
The novel is written in the 3rd person past tense PoV of Jungersen and Jensen in alternate chapters.

I enjoyed the writing, but not the resolution of the book. It was obvious from the beginning, but neither of the main characters thought of it. I also thought the end was wrapped up too fast.

Since this is part of a series, not all the subplots find closure. The issue relating to Jungersen’s marriage is resolved, as also the subplot relating to a scandal at Gustav’s school, but the suicide of Carsten, a bankrupt man, is carried over to the next book.

What I found strange was that the series goes by Jensen’s name, but there was altogether too much information about Jungersen.


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


Book Review: IN ANOTHER LIGHT


Title: In Another Light

Author: AJ Banner
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Pages: 251
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

 

Phoebe Glassman is grieving the loss of her husband, Logan McClary and toddler daughter, Ava, in a terrible car accident three years ago. Since then, she has lost herself in her work at the funeral home where she works to reconstruct dead faces. Her mother, Lidia, an archaeologist, now suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.

When the body of a 32-year-old woman, Pauline Steele, is sent to Fair Winds, the funeral home in which she works, Phoebe finds herself taken unawares and desperate for answers.

Not only is Pauline a doppelganger of Phoebe’s, though a decade younger, she also has on her arm a tattoo that Logan had a photo of on his phone. And in the dead woman’s purse, Phoebe finds her own photo.

As Phoebe uncovers more and more evidence of Logan’s affair and duplicity, she becomes obsessed with finding out the complete truth. But the truth is at the bottom of an abyss. Will Phoebe find the answers she seeks? Or will she lose herself in the process?

 

The book is written in the 3rd person present tense PoV of Phoebe. The author does a fantastic job of portraying the character of Phoebe, her grief, her understanding of betrayal and her desperation to reclaim what is truly hers. We feel a sense of pity and compassion for her, at her constant attempts at guessing and second guessing herself, her feeble attempts at investigation.

My heart ached at the thought of a mother missing out on the milestones in her child’s life, not knowing her favourites.

But some things felt forced. Phoebe deleting her best friend Renee’s text without reading it made no sense.

 
The details about the work done in a funeral home make for interesting, if morbid, reading.

Our heroine has an unusual profession. A trained sculptor, she reconstructs dead human faces for the comfort of the grieving family. She also prepares the bodies of the dead for burial or cremation, embalming etc. As a mortuary cosmetologist, Phoebe knows how much the survivors need restoration of their deceased loved ones’ features to grapple with their grief.

I wondered at Phoebe’s father’s name, Raja. Then learned that the author, AJ Banner, was born in India, and then it made perfect sense.

The writing was beautiful.

Scraping off bacteria like a layer of pond scum.

Protecting the bereaved from the necessary messiness of death.

But now, there is no sign that a marriage once flourished here.

I also liked the character of Mike Rivera, a paramedical employee of the funeral home.



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


Friday, July 29, 2022

Book Review: THE AUCTION



Title: The Auction
Author: Elci North
Publisher: Self-publishef
Pages: 502
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐

 

The way to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. Where does the way paved with bad intentions and totalitarian control lead? Dystopia, for sure.

Jane, a student of software engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, gets drunk and sleeps with her classmate Dave Stowe and gets pregnant. Now in her second trimester, they are married, but Jane does not love him. Angelica dares gay Eric to do it with a woman and gets pregnant. Visually impaired Millie and her husband, Jason, are pregnant after 13 years of marriage and a number of miscarriages. Wendy, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, is pregnant after being raped by a psycho who breaks into her room while she is asleep and rapes her while holding a knife to her throat. She is constantly raped and tortured by her husband.

According to the law, women must marry the biological father of the child they are carrying. But Angelica doesn’t want to marry Eric. She wants to marry Angus, a rich lawyer who she loves.

The law also says that a mother may not study or work until her child turns 18. Also, couples must give up the child they bear to the government and must bid for and buy a child from the government-run auction. These laws, enforced by the Office of Reproductive Oversight, have been passed by President Boyce, who wants to bring back the Second Halcyon Days, similar to the 1950s and early 1960s.

Jane works on a secret project for her husband’s department. Angelica, who routinely uses drugs, pays Jane to buy her clean urine. When Jason meets with an accident, Millie is deemed unfit to live alone. Wendy’s husband is arrested for breaking the rules of his parole, and she has nowhere to go.

All four of them are sent to McKee Place, a jail for pregnant women who have broken the law or have no family member to care for them. But what the government doesn’t know is that the women may be bringing about a revolution.

 

The book is set in America in the future. The exact year isn’t clear, but it is after 2166. Each chapter in the book consists of first person past tense PoVs of Jane, Angelica, Millie and Wendy, in that order. The portions that are in the PoV of Wendy and those that relate to Jocelyn, another young girl, who is pregnant, in particular, make for disturbing reading.

The main narrative is interspersed with Flash Newsbriefs relating to political policies and the consequences they lead to. These are at first interesting, as the consequences of women withdrawing from the labour force mean labour shortages. But then the effect peters out, when there is more of the same.

The prison doesn’t feel like a prison at all. The women call it a “spa by the river” in a mocking tone, but the way they behave, it does appear as if they are on vacation. The menace exuded by the Office of Reproductive Oversight is not really felt. President Boyce who calls the shots doesn’t have an active role, beyond the Flash News Briefs, giving him an insubstantial air.

For a novel set in dystopia, we never get the impression of the characters being in danger ever. Even the Office of Reproductive Oversight is a silly little thing, getting flummoxed when two women tell them their appeal committee is invalid.

There were a lot of spelling errors in the copy. For instance, one of the characters talks about feeling ‘self-conscience’, rather than ‘self-conscious.’

There is altogether too much dialogue about banal, ordinary things. There is a lot of repetition with characters repeating their stories to different people in different words.

Towards the end, the book becomes increasingly more unconvincing as if the author just wanted to get the book done. The entire plan to take down the auction is propped on such a flimsy base as to be almost laughable. If the author had put some details about how Jane intended to hack the system etc, it would have helped. But all we get is that there are a lot of hackers in Russia, and Jane can’t explain things because her friends won’t understand. The hacking sounds like a ridiculously easy solution.

Also, the shipping of contraband books about the real history of the US happens easily, facing no objection from the authorities. The parts which Jane reads and explains are tedious.

The constant references to Angus’ sexiness and his perfection lose their novelty soon enough, but the characters don’t stop talking about it.

Millie’s heightened, almost superhuman, sense of smell should have been integrated into the plot, rather than being just an attribute of hers, used to tell the others about when meat is rancid. For a while, I hoped she might solve the mystery about whoever died in the room. But that didn’t happen either.

The arc of many of the characters is left incomplete. We learn nothing about the babies that the women give birth to. For all their grief about Wendy, they don’t seem to care as much about her child.

For a story that claims to be about women’s empowerment, the women get rescued by the men for the most part. It is Angus’ money that seems to buy a lot of concessions for them even in the prison.

The only reason Wendy has to die is because there is no loving male in her life. Otherwise, her depression isn’t very convincing.

 

There is no explanation for why Dave and Angus don’t believe the government’s propaganda, considering that the government has been spreading it for nearly a century. Also, why Angelica’s father and Angus are willing to spend their own money to bring down the government without any political motivation? Angus claims to want to bring down a system that denigrates women and yet he too hopes that his baby is a boy.

At one point, Wendy goes into a high-security floor of the prison where prisoners, deemed to be flight risks, are incarcerated in solitary confinement. Yet she escapes from there, and the author doesn’t tell us how.

The book is set more than 100 years into the future, but there is no mention of newer technology. Granted that communication technologies are deliberately kept low-key by the government, even the surveillance technology is exactly as we know it is in the present time. Even medical technology seems to be at today’s level. Dave returns from Russia, and says, they have made amazing advances with virtual reality. Bah! Virtual reality is already making waves today. Over 150 years later, you have nothing to add about the technology. The author has set the book in the future, but not created any setting in terms of time and socio-economic conditions prevalent.

Many of the readers compared this book to The Handmaid, but for me, this book was far from impactful. That was partly to do with the less-than-forceful plot resolution, and also with the fact that we in India are descending into a dystopia that is far worse than anything found in these pages. Being forced to marry somebody we don’t love is already a reality for many women around the world.


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

Book Review: THE PROMISE



Title: The Promise

Author: Emily Shiner
Publisher: Inkubator Books
Pages: 251
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐

 

Wealthy lawyer Scott Anders is so devoted to his wife, Erin, that he keeps tabs on her. He has rigged the house with hidden cameras and taps her phone, all in an attempt to keep her safe. He persuades Erin to donate a kidney to a single mother, Kathleen, who needs it.

While Erin agrees to do so, what she doesn’t know is that she is the one who needs a kidney and that Scott has paid a huge amount of money to unscrupulous Dr Thomas, who has lined up Kathleen’s twin as a possible kidney donor for her.

What Scott doesn’t know is that Kathleen has some devious plans up her sleeve and they aren’t in favour of Erin.

 

The book is written in the first person present tense PoV of Scott, Erin and Kathleen. The prose is tepid. It seems as if the narrative voice almost addresses us as readers, and that takes us out of the story.

I particularly hate it when characters get a thought that makes me shiver but push it away, unwilling to give it any more of my time and energy just to push the plot forward.

Much of the writing, in all three PoVs, is repetitive, belabouring a point long after it has been made. Over and over, we are told that Erin is good and kind. The over-explanation is extremely tedious.

The same thoughts are expressed in different ways in chapter after chapter, with very little changing in the real world. Words, phrases, plot, everything is repeated. The overall effect is that of an under-developed plot stretched thin.

None of the characters are likeable. Erin is stupid and doesn’t question anything. She comes across as holier-than-thou, babbling on and on about her desire to save Kathleen’s life, and I just couldn’t figure out what she did all day. Also, she’s just a decade older than Kathleen, yet she thinks of the latter as a daughter.

Scott spies on his wife and brags that even if his wife were to pick her nose, he’d know. He is just too controlling, and constantly repeats that he just loves her so much. Sorry, but that’s obsession, not love.

Kathleen is horrible but she doesn’t make a mark. She has the potential to be a very menacing character, but the endless repetition ends up undoing whatever effect the author strives for. Her motivations are the most ridiculous.

 

There are some inconsistencies and omissions. In Chapter 7, Scott tells us that Erin can’t cook, that if she made scrambled eggs, they would taste like rubber. In the same chapter, he lets on that during their courtship, she used to make hot meals for him.

Erin calls Kathleen, saying that her husband told her that she needed a kidney and that she, Erin, was willing to donate hers. In her own PoV, Kathleen keeps thanking Dr Thomas for finding Erin, when it is Erin who has sought her out.

 

Each of the three main characters think they are outsmarting the others, but they are only fooling themselves. In truth, there were no secrets at all. Each character insists on repeating their motivations and intentions over and over again. The chapters end on what is intended to be a mysterious note, but the effort falls short of the mark.

Some things remain unclear. How could Erin not know that she suffers from kidney failure? And why on earth does Scott want to hide it from her?

In Kathleen’s mother’s obit, which we learn that Erin put together, it is mentioned that Francine, mother of Kathleen, had heart disease and Alport Syndrome, the disease that Kathleen suffers from. Why was this fact not mentioned before? The character only harped on about her weak heart.

Also, Alport Syndrome is a genetic disease. Yet Kathleen keeps insisting that it is only a matter of time before her daughter gets it, never once mentioning the fact that her mother has it too and that it is an inherited condition.

The big reveal about the non-existent twin is pathetic.

The Prologue does a poor job of foreshadowing. The resolution is weak and the twist in the Epilogue unimpactful.


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


Friday, July 15, 2022

Book Review: GOOD HUSBANDS



Title: Good Husbands
Author: Cate Ray
Publisher: Park Row
Pages: 386
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Three women, Jessica Jackson, Stephanie Brooke and Priyanka Lawley, strangers to each other, get an identical letter from a woman called Holly Waite, who tells them that her mother, Nicola Waite, was raped 30 years ago in 1990 by their husbands, Maximilian Jackson, Daniel Brooke and Andrew Lawley. For all of them, in marriages of love and trust, the allegation in the letter is deeply disturbing.

The letter evokes different reactions. Jess wants the truth. Priyanka is at first determined to protect Andrew, then loses confidence in him and is undecided about what to do. Stephanie wants to protect her husband and save her family, no matter what. While the other two would prefer to hide from the truth, Jess eggs them on, seeking to band together as a team.

Jess makes it her goal to get justice for Nicole, and Holly too, knowing that the truth could upset their lives and break up their marriages and families.

But will they ever get at the truth, and will justice be served?
 

The novel is written in the first person present tense PoV of Jess, Priyanka and Stephanie. The book is written in three parts, The Letter, The Diary and The Key, each of which drive the action onward.

The premise is a weighty one. A strong woman in a committed marriage learns that her husband has raped somebody in the past. How would she react?

I liked the writing. Here’s a sample:

It’s so temperamental, sexual interplay. One word, one look can alter things dramatically… Attraction is just smoke and mirrors. So fragile, desire can vanish at any moment.

Bitter looks ugly when unwrapped.

At 400 pages, the book is long, with not much action filling up those pages, but although I found myself impatient, I wasn’t bored. The author raises the point about the steady breakdown of democracy in many countries, including India.

The novel meanders a lot, going into questions of male privilege, testosterone, even marital sex, whether a wife can say No, and the age-old assumption that when a woman is raped or sexually assaulted, she was ‘asking’ for it. How the blame is shifted on to the girl, while the perpetrator is condoned.

There is an extensive section about the gaslighting that women are subjected to. And above all, the institution where the heinous act was committed, Montague Club, where women weren’t even allowed in until the 80s.

I found Priyanka’s job very interesting. Although ungraded, we need more discussions on such subjects for young people and teenagers.

I was happy to see an Indian character, ticking off the diversity quotient. I was happier still to know she wasn’t a stereotype. The only mistake was the author’s acknowledgement of her Punjabi Indian heritage. Bandyopadhyay, Priyanka’s surname, is Bengali, not Punjabi.

Stephanie was the character I warmed the least to. She was the most unwilling to believe in the veracity of Nicole’s story, believing the lies about the woman’s promiscuity and how she asked for it. But I also felt sorry for her once she revealed that she learned to keep my sentences short because he often interrupts me when I’m speaking, doesn’t ask what it was that I was going to say.

Priyanka changes her stance when she is confronted by all the lessons around consent that she teaches her students.

Jess is the driving force, for the greater part of the book, the only one to believe Nicole. Of the three women, she has the most powerful and unwavering moral compass. Between them, the three women spanned the gamut of reactions to rape.

Even the men are each representative of a type. There is the ‘weak’ Mr Nice Guy, the brash, militant type and the one who gets by on his looks.

Each of the characters went through turmoil in their respective lives, and they all underwent change.

This was a book about strong women, every single one of them, major and minor characters alike. I also liked how every single thread was resolved, and every character given closure, down to Shelley Fricker. In the end, this band of women stood up for their own against the power imbalance.


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



Book Review: THE INFLUENCER


Title: The Influencer
Author: Miranda Rijks
Pages: 308
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Nathan Edwards is raising two daughters, 15yo Isla and 13yo Chloe, since the death of his wife, Sacha, of cancer ten years ago. He is now engaged to Marie, their former au pair. He runs Sacha’s Sanctuary, a charity for the homeless, in memory of his dead wife.

When Skye, a famous social media influencer with a multi-million following, offers to be a brand ambassador for the charity for free, Nathan is confused, even as his daughters are thrilled and completely enamoured with her. He wonders what such a famous person expects to get out of a tie-up with his charity.

Nathan knows that an association with Skye would change the fortunes of his charity, but he can’t help but think that it would not be good for him or his family.

Meanwhile homeless teen Skye, in the past, on the run from a dangerous ‘safe’ home for vulnerable teens, faces numerous threats posed by drug peddlers, potential rapists and wild animals, while living rough on the street. She is confused at the offer of friendship from teenage heiress Tiffany Larkin.



The novel is written in the first person present tense PoV of Nathan in the current time, and Skye Then, in alternate chapters. The Then is when Skye was 17 years of age, about 11 years ago. After a significant event in 2008, the point of view timeline changes to Skye in the present time, once again alternating with Nathan’s PoV in the present. 

I loved the style of the narration, the action sequences and the dialogue. Unlike the characters in the two previous books, The Arrangement and You Are Mine, by this author that I’ve read, here the characters don’t make any stupid choices just for the sake of advancing the plot.

There are unsaid lessons about the perils of social media fame, a world which supposedly prizes the need for authenticity, and yet revels in its fakery.

The characters are good and believable. The only one I didn’t care for was Marie. She seemed too passive and insubstantial. Nor did I care much for the relationship between Nathan and Marie.

The twist is a good one. What isn’t good is the manner in which it is revealed to us. The police figuring out the truth is organic and believable. But the perpetrator writing of their crimes in a letter to a person who will never get that letter doesn’t work at all.

The book ends on a high note, a cliffhanger of sorts. It’s not suggestive of a sequel, but is definitely an upping of the ante.


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


Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Book Review: ENDLESS FEAR


Title: Endless Fear
Author: Adrianne Lee
Pages: 249
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐

 
At age 14, April Farraday’s life changed when her mother, actress Lily Cordell-Farraday, fell down the stairs and died. That was 12 years ago. Since then, April has not been able to get the thought out of her mind that she may have been the one to push her mother down.

Having spent the intervening years in a sanitarium, April is now back at Calendar House, her old home, where she has been invited for the formal engagement party of her stepbrother, Thane Garrick.

An ominous note has warned her to stay away, but April is determined to go, hoping to unlock the memories around her mother’s death. Meanwhile, it appears that whoever sent the note has some dangerous plans for her. Accidents keep happening to her, and April is unsure who to trust.

Is old love Spencer to blame, or her stepmother, Cynthia? Will she recover her memories in time or end up losing her life?

 

It was hard to get a timeline on this book, but since none of the characters had cellphones, I assumed it was the eighties.

 

The passages written from the viewpoint of the villain of the piece were rather weak. The entire mystery felt very tepid at the end of it all?

 

There were a lot of proofing errors in this book. Some of the descriptions are banal. With her blood the temperature of ice water. In the same paragraph, we get her mouth felt as dry as the desert outside, her palms as damp as the dew on the cacti.

We are told that April’s father forgot ‘amenities,’ instead of the right word, ‘niceties.’

 

The descriptions are another annoyance. There are repeated references to the colour of character’s eyes and hair, which is distracting and takes away from the action. Spencer’s hair is at first chocolate, then coffee brown, and then chocolate again. His eyes are dove gray, then pewter.

The number of times that Spencer and April kiss each other before Spencer pulls apart is once too often. The forward and backward dance between them continues throughout the book. The entire misunderstanding between them could have been sorted out if they had only spoken, but neither seems to have the good sense to do that. And so, we are left with a book which could have been shorter.

There is a lot of repetition. A lot of characters staring at each other over a certain number of ‘long seconds.’

The Farradays name their children after the month in which they are born. So April’s dad is August, her aunt is called March, and her half-sister is called July. This comes across more as a gimmick than an eccentricity. What if a boy were to be born in May or June? Or a girl in February?

Crusty old Aunt March didn’t get enough space in the book. And then there was all the skirting around Spencer. April though of Cynthia as her stepmother, and Thane as her stepbrother. But Thane’s twin brother, Spencer, was not once referred to as a stepbrother. That was awkward.


Book Review: MADELINE'S MIRACLES


Title: Madeline’s Miracles
Author: Warren Adler
Publisher: Stonehouse Press
Pages: 360
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

 

Virginia Sargent, a commercial artist living the California lifestyle with her stockbroker husband, Jack, and twin pre-teen daughters, who are undisputed masters on the soccer field, meets an enigmatic woman at her beauty parlour. That woman is Madeline Boswell, and she knows everything about Virginia and her family.

Virginia feels drawn to her, and before long, as Madeline’s predictions begin to come true, she begins to trust her completely. She becomes so obsessed with Madeline that she makes her the sole subject of her canvas. She truly believes Madeline’s promise that she can keep their family safe and happy, help them achieve their dreams and protect them from all dangers.

At first Jack is sceptical and spends time and energy trying to expose Madeline as a two-bit psychic and a charlatan. But when his daughter is saved from near tragedy at a football game, he becomes a fanatical convert.

Before long, Madeline is invited to live in their beautiful home, and the couple accord her the status of a demi-god. She dictates terms on every aspect of their lives, from their work, parenting and the stock market. They begin to follow her advice, no matter how outlandish it may seem. But then strange things begin to happen. Lines that should never be crossed are transgressed. Who is Madeline? Is she really clairvoyant, able to see the future and protect their family from unknown dangers, or is she nothing but a sleazy conwoman?
 

The story is written in the 3rd person past tense PoV of Virginia and Jack in alternate chapters. We don’t see much of the girls. For the most part, we are told that they are busy at soccer practice. It would have been interesting to have their 3rd person PoV too to see how their parents’ acceptance of this woman affected them, and what they made of it.

The writing is good, and the dialogue believable. The football match in which the twins work their magic is a turning point for the family and is well written.

While the author builds up the story well, the ending is not very convincing. There wasn’t enough conflict to make the characters credible. Also, we get to see Jack’s journey from scepticism to conviction, but for Virginia, it seems as if it takes almost nothing for her to become a complete believer. The fierceness with which she places Madeline on a pedestal, and worships her, treating her at once as a god and a mother made me uncomfortable.

There are references to sex, but they are not gratuitous, even though they are sickening to read about because of what they represent.

Madeline seems like a one-woman cult, and like Jack and Virginia, we hover between rejection and acceptance of the strange things happening in the life of the Sargents. Though a work of fiction, we have seen enough evidence of sensible people giving over their lives into the control of another person to know that such things are very much possible.

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


Friday, July 01, 2022

Book Review: THE CARETAKERS



Title: The Caretakers
Author: Eliza Maxwell
Publisher: 313
Pages: Lake Union Publishing
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The Caretakers is the story of two pairs of sisters. We have Tessa and Margot in the present day, and aged sisters, Dierdre and Kitty. Initially, we are unable to see how the two pairs of sisters are related, because they seem to have nothing in common. The connection between the two pairs of sisters is not immediately apparent.

 
Filmmaker Tessa Shepherd’s documentary about the unlawful incarceration of Oliver Barlow, convicted for the murder of a young Gwen Morley and serving his sentence for the last 14 years, wins him an acquittal and release. The film itself launched Tessa’s career into stardom, of sorts.
Now it seems, he has raped and killed again and Tessa is being hounded by the press and the victim’s father, who was the investigating cop in the Morley case, for being instrumental in the release of a killer. The news fills Tessa with guilt.
Meanwhile, the sudden death of her mother forces her to seek reconciliation with her estranged twin sister, Margot. The sisters inherit their mother’s home, Fallbrook, and come to know of the deadly secrets it hides within its walls. Decades ago, the family had been slaughtered. The piano teacher was convicted of the crime, but he may have been innocent. Since then, the house has been abandoned; only two elderly sisters, Dierdre and Kitty, stay behind as caretakers.
In the present time, there is some drama and history between Tessa and Margot in the past, which has led to their estrangement.

 

All these threads have to be tied together and how well they are tied together is what will give us satisfaction as readers. Unfortunately, all the threads, though tied up well, do not give equal satisfaction. The estrangement between Tessa and Margot was the weakest storyline.

The love and the fraught relationship between Tessa and Margot was the plot thread that interested me the least. The drama was unconvincing; nothing that couldn’t have been resolved by the two of them sitting together and talking. But the author let it get out of hand and it ended up taking too much space. The storyline involving the two elderly sisters and the one involving Oliver Barlow had far more potential, and it would have been better if the author had focused on just these two.

The book is written in alternating timelines from the 3rd person perspectives of Dierdre, Kitty and Tessa. The past that emerged from Kitty’s ghostly recollections was far more promising.

There’s an air of mystery and ghostliness particularly in the story relating to Fallbrook, and I really enjoyed those parts. I also loved the descriptions of the house and the ending to the Fallbrook storyline.

In Chapter 18, which offers a deeper introduction to Fallbrook, we read some of the most exquisite prose in the book. A house dies a slow death without a family to fill it.

Elsewhere, Hatred grows best in a place where love dies.

I would definitely read another book by this author.


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

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Book Review: THE PERFECT FAMILY



Title: The Perfect Family
Author: Lorna Dounaeva
Publisher: Inkubator Books
Pages: 313
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐
 

Victoria Hill has the perfect family. Joey, 9yo, is well-behaved and a musical prodigy, and Anna, at 14, is a model student at St Bernard’s School. Victoria herself is an Environmental Ambassador at Joey’s school. She and her husband, Kit, a stockbroker, have a huge house and are doing very well. But the truth is that the couple are paranoid about having their secret revealed.

When Joey’s teacher, Miss Henley, suggests that he might be autistic, Victoria goes into denial mode, unaware that Joey has stopped taking his pills. Meanwhile, Anna has begun to rebel and has made friends who are undesirable in Victoria’s eyes. Victoria is barely holding it together when Belinda Donovan asks for a piano class for her son, Ricky, both she and Kit baulk at the idea. They are both afraid of the consequences of Belinda learning a truth they have tried hard to run from.

 

 

The book is written in the 3rd person past tense point of view of Victoria and Anna. We are also given excerpts from Joey’s diary.

 

The pace of the book is slow. The first hint of the extent to which she is willing to go to preserve the façade of the perfect family comes at the 57 percent mark. Thereafter it’s downhill.

The book offers a subtle critique on the lengths some people go to maintain a façade, especially for social media.

None of the characters are really likeable. In Victoria’s case, she starts out as unlikeable, and then her behaviour worsens. Because she had a less than perfect upbringing, she is determined to ensure perfection for her family in every aspect. While the motivation may be sound, the way she goes about achieving it is not.

Kit gets short shrift. He rarely takes any action, unless directed to do so by his wife, and so, he comes across as flat. He doesn’t even have any deep connection with the children. It is Victoria who makes all the decisions.

Some of the details we are given about her are bizarre. On a day on which she has lots of housework to do, she remains on hold on a call to a busy restaurant, Harry’s Burger House, we are told, for a full hour, before hanging up. Surely if she were that obsessed, she’d hang up and actually go to the place. Also, it’s crazy that a busy restaurant doesn’t cut the call but lets her hold on for an hour.

I liked the cover, the cracked windshield against the house was beautiful. It served to remind us readers of the perfection that was threatened for the main characters.

The ending was really twisted, and not in a good way. It was completely unbelievable. Nothing that had happened before prepared us for the end.


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

Monday, June 27, 2022

Book Review: THE MOMMY CLIQUE


Title: The Mommy Clique
Author: Barbara Altamirano
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Pages: 203
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐


Elise is the queen bee of the Mommy clique. Kelly is her right hand, sycophantic and ingratiating. Ronnie has no place in this adult version of high school, though she has made herself quite comfortable by gleaning secrets about the others. Gail is the wannabe, never at ease with herself.

When Beth returns to her hometown in Connecticut to care for her sick mother, along with her husband and three children, she is lonely. Despite herself, she feels drawn to the Mommy clique, consisting of Elise, Kelly, Ronnie and Gail.

What follows is a series of pranks, all designed as part of a bizarre initiation. Because Elise has decided that Beth is to be the target.

 

I thought it would have been better if we had been introduced to Beth before the other characters. Beth is the protagonist in this grown-up drama; we should have had an opportunity to bond with her first. Instead we meet her after we get to know the other four women.

I couldn’t relate to any of the characters. They were selfish and cold. All in all, there’s too much drama at a school bus stop. It was for the most part meaningless and confusing. I couldn’t see why anyone would want to put up with it.

The writing was tepid and indistinguishable from one PoV to another. It’s hard to keep track of whose PoV it is. As if there wasn’t enough confusion for the reader from five PoVs in Chapter 1, the author decides to hand out titles and then refer to chapter names using the titles, from Chapter 2.

As the book picked up steam, it got better and the voices became distinct, but I still couldn’t imagine grown women behaving like this.

Elise calls Gail’s Halloween party costume “more sedated” than her usual style. More sedated?

The names could have been chosen better. Beth’s husband is Rick and her son is Ricky. This becomes confusing for us.

Going by the title, I had assumed that the book would be about the rivalry in the PTA. This was just too unreal.

The ending was particularly disturbing. In a world in which sexual assault and rape are justified because the woman “was asking for it,” or “deserved it,” the final resolution smacked of insensitivity and cruelty.


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

Friday, June 24, 2022

Book Review: FAMILY MATTERS


Title: Family Matters
Author: Rohinton Mistry
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Pages: 500
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Family Matters is all heart, just as all stories about families are. The story of an ordinary Parsi family made worthy of our attention.

Nariman Vakeel is a 79-year-old Parsi man mollycoddled by stepson Jal and stepdaughter Coomy Contractor, the middle-aged, unmarried children of his dead wife, Yasmin. A widower, he suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, but his spirit is unshakeable.

When Nariman has a fall and fractures his leg, Coomy, unwilling to put up with the inconvenience of looking after him, bamboozles Jal into agreeing with her plan and dumps the old man on his daughter Roxana, who lives with husband Yezad Chenoy and two sons, 13yo Murad and 9yo Jehangir, in a very tiny apartment in a building called Pleasant Villa.

The arrangement is supposed to last only 20 days. Coomy tells Roxana that Nariman may return to their large 7-room flat in a building called Chateau Felicity, once the cast is removed. But Coomy has no intention of letting Nariman return.

Meanwhile, Yezad, frustrated with the inconvenience of having a bedridden man take up space in his little home and the additional expenses demanded, plans a little deception at work.

 

The story is set in Bombay, in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the horrible riots that ravaged the city, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was then that the city shed its lovely skin and turned into something ugly.

I treasured the stories about Bombay, seeing in Mr Kapur, the owner of Bombay Sporting Goods, where Yezad works, a kindred spirit.

The author talks with sensitivity and compassion about such subjects as the loneliness of old age, the frustrations of middle age, and the stress of having too many needs and not enough funds to satisfy them. He also highlights the issue of arranged marriages, a hoary Indian tradition which takes away the agency of choice from mature youth.

He has a gift for making the mundane pressure cooker whistles, ordinary stories of life in a Parsi colony come alive. This is life, bared in all its splendour and imperfection. The sights and sounds of everyday India transmuted to prose.

Despite its sheer breadth and length (at 500 pages), the book doesn’t seem lengthy. We are wholly invested, seeing the hubris of the characters, their arrogance and helplessness.

There are no villains here. Just people reacting to situations, not always wisely. The minor characters have extended sections and their own backstories, which makes them come alive. We warm to them, even though their lives intersect with the main plot only in passing. Vilas Rane’s letter writing, Daisy who plays the violin, Edul Munshi, the fixer-upper who breaks more things than he fixes, all their stories are utterly moving.

It was especially heartwarming to read about Nariman’s bond with his grandsons. The financial struggles of Yezad and Roxana were the stories of countless families across the land, where one meagre salary is stretched paper-thin to cover the needs of many.

Nariman is relatable and likeable. The tremor in his legs gives him the appearance of some pervert jiggling his thighs.

Nariman’s Goan girlfriend, Lucy Alvarez, is described by his parents as a firangi. Completely relatable in a country in which for all our diversity, we are all outsiders to the others, seeking the continuation of our legacies with those like us. The novel gives us many examples of this. There is also the prejudice of the Shiv Sainiks against the locals, Parsis against the ‘ghatis.’

Those who lived through the ‘90s will be reminded of the high-handedness of the Shiv Sena’s hardline Hindutva stance then, and their hypocrisy in hosting Michael Jackson while denigrating all things Western.

 

The book took me back to the 90s when the poor and middle class depended on the public distribution system and the ration card was an important document. Vilas Rane writing letters in three languages for the unlettered, in an era in which letter writing was the primary mode of communication. Family matters shared on paper, magic for the recipient. Like perfume. You don’t apply a whole bottle. Just one dab will fill your senses. Words are the same – a few are sufficient.

Parsi words like lufroo, buckro and the names of Parsi dishes like eedu, dhandar patiyo etc add a homely touch. I also found the names very interesting. The Contractors with the disaster in the ceiling, Vilie Cardmaster and her matka fixation, Munshi with his handyman obsession, the names are sometimes apt, at other times ironic. Pleasant Villa wasn’t all that pleasant for those that lived in its tiny apartments, and Chateau Felicity was mired in generational unhappiness. There is a theme running through the novel about reaping what one sows.

The cover was simple yet telling. Because the man on the cover has his back to us, it’s easy for us to imagine Nariman through his entire lifespan.

My only grouse was that the epilogue was much too long and didn’t feel like a wrapping up but a treading into newer waters. The back blurb wasn’t quite accurate, making Yezad’s deception out to be far worse than it was.


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Book Review: MURDER AT THE BRIGHTWELL (Amory Ames #1)




Title: Murder at the Brightwell (Amory Ames #1)
Author: Ashley Weaver
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Pages: 336
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐



The very first line, It is an impossibly great trial to be married to a man one loves and hates in equal proportions. With that almost Austenian beginning, the novel began.

While romance as a genre isn’t my preferred choice, I don’t mind it if it shows up in other genres, just as long as it stays unobtrusive. I had hopes it would be so, given that there was the word, Murder, in the title. But it wasn’t so.

 

Amory Ames’ marriage is strained within just five years. Husband Milo neglects her and prefers to spend all his time gambling in Monte Carlo. Amory regrets her whirlwind wedding with him.

When former fiancé and old friend Gilmore Trent invites her on a seaside holiday to the Brightwell hotel to warn his sister, Emmeline, to break off her engagement with her fiancé, Rupert Howe, an untrustworthy cad, Amory readily agrees.

At the hotel, Milo shows up, testing her friendship and Gil’s intentions towards her. When Rupert is found murdered and Gil arrested for the crime, Amory is determined to find the real killer and prove Gil’s innocence. Will she succeed? Or will the killer strike again?

Also, as Milo ingratiates himself to her, can she sort out her feelings towards Milo and Gil?

 

The story, set in Kent, England, in 1932, is written in the first person past tense point of view of Amory.

I liked the author’s descriptions. She describes a mismatched couple as something akin to a cinema star on the arm of a parish priest. Of another character, she says, The sort of person one liked at once, but for whom the fondness fades after a short time.

Amory’s back story, her issues with Milo were written well, but they took away the focus from the murder.

Amory was a good strong character. She is willing to stand up for herself, even if it means facing ridicule and going against the social mores of her times, and she dislikes the term, husbandly rights. She is quick on the uptake and has a delicious sense of repartee. Most of the time, she didn’t do stupid things to advance the plot.

The author makes a comment on the upper class who, no matter what the tragedy, still put social niceties above everything else.

In keeping with the traditions of the Grand Ole Dame of Mystery Fiction, the book is chock-filled with characters, but the air is more that of a cozy mystery than anything else.

The author or her editor would do well to pay more attention to her sentence construction, particularly sentences with ‘one’ as the subject.

I found the pace a little rushed towards the end, compared to the beginning and middle which devotes too much space to the stay at the hotel and the holidaying. I also had my doubts about the names, Milo and Amory, particularly in the England of the 1930s, when most classical literature of the time featured characters with traditional names.


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


Thursday, April 28, 2022

Book Review: PAPER HEARTS



Title: Paper Hearts

Author: Meg Wiviott

Publisher: Margaret K McElderry Books

Pages: 352

My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

 

 

I’ve read numerous stories about the Holocaust and this one, based on a true story, was another grim reminder of that dark period. Here in India, the right-wing majoritarian government is following the Nazi rulebook. As a member of the minority, it is frightening to see the parallels.

I was drawn to the cover long before I read the synopsis. The curved line cutting through the P and H of the title, am embroidered seam on fabric, with the Star of David on the top corner.

This was my first experience of reading a novel set to verse. I was quite impressed with how the author countered the challenge of using few words and making them count.

The story is brought to us in the PoVs of Zlatka and Fania, two teenage girls at the Auschwitz concentration camp, in alternating chapters. Zlatka is the oldest of four children, who loses her family in the camps. The last time they are together is when they carry their worldly possessions to a grim future. We are reminded of the terror that the families face. The narrative in verse doesn’t give us details, but we know enough of this tumultuous and traumatic period in history to put them in.

Zlatka wants to show that she is stronger than they supposed a girl – a Jew – could be, should be. The transports, with their lack of toilets, filth and lack of privacy, and chunks of stale bread once a day are just the beginning of their troubles.  

Fania also loses her family in the camps. Before they are put on the transport, her father wonders How could such a society produce such masters (as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Goethe) and such monsters.

Fania’s parents think she looks Aryan, but it doesn’t save her from the worst.

 

Brief snatches of words gives us a glimpse of Jewish customs and rituals as on the night of the Passover. Past memories sneaking into the present.

The author picks the most frightening facts and distils them down. Images of Little children clung to coat hems in a place where fences too high to climb/ hummed with electricity.

Men made feral from war… I cringed,/ wondering,/ at a hollowness/ that made/ scrawny/ filthy/ sick/ girls look good enough to eat.

 

Within the narrative form, the author played around, using the form to show the Selection, the poor and frail on the left, the robust and strong on the right. The simple yet evocative titles section the scenes apart.

 

The very first verse gives us an idea of Zlatka’s changed reality as a Jew and her efforts to assert her identity while seeking not to draw attention. Eyes lowered/ not shamed/ footsteps steady/ not faster/ or slower/ than before.

We come to know of the steady isolation of Jews as the Nazis spread their tentacles. And we see the excesses of the camps, the shearing of hair, the tattooing of numbers, the tearing apart of families, through the eyes of the two girls.

It is a new order in which even criminals rank higher than Jews.

 

In the midst of it all, we see defiance, Laughter,/ not of the mad,/ but of the living. The girls become family to each other, offering consolation and comfort, facing the worst of Auschwitz. Guta, Giza, Bronia and others, all make a place for themselves in our hearts.

 

In a world in which the possession of a love letter is grounds for hanging, the girls know it would be suicidal to do what they did. And yet they barter precious bread to procure pencil and paper to make a small handmade paper heart for Fania’s birthday. The messages from the girls are a testament to their courage and a lesson to us on how life should be celebrated in the midst of our troubles.


Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Book Review: THE GHOST RUNNER (A MAKANA MYSTERY #3)


Title: The Ghost Runner (A Makana Mystery #3)

Author: Parker Bilal

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (UK)

Pages: 432

My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

 

The Ghost Runner was a sordid tale of jealousy and corruption, of unrequited love and greed, all playing against the backdrop of a sleepy yet dangerous town in Egypt.

I’m always excited to read a new author, and this book was a slow yet exciting read.


The story begins in Denmark and then takes us to Egypt.

Makana, a PI in Cairo, on exile from Sudan, suffering personal turmoil on account of the wife and daughter he lost in Sudan, is retained by a woman to spy on her husband and ferret out his indiscretions. The husband is Magdy Ragab, a famous, wealthy lawyer.

Makana discovers a daughter, Karimi Ragab, badly burned and admitted to a high-end hospital, that Ragab’s wife knows nothing about.

To discover who might have wanted the girl dead, Makana is retained by Ragab, and sent out to Siwa, a rural oasis far from Cairo, where Musab, Karimi’s father, Ragab’s one-time client, hailed from. In Siwa, Makana is roped into an informal investigation into the brutal murder of the Qadi (judge) by the chief cop, Hamama, in exchange for help with the case that he is investigating.

But the sleepy town hides many secrets. Violence follows Makana at every turn, and there is an old enemy from his life in Sudan who seems to be calling the shots. In such a situation, will Makana find the answers he seeks?

  

 

The descriptions looked at a non-Western culture with an eye that was clinically Western and indulgently local. I particularly enjoyed the voice of the omniscient narrator and the opinions it offered. The author packs his descriptions with nuggets of history and analysis of politics, all told with the elan of a storyteller, keeping us entranced.

The prose was rich, colourful and evocative. Even when the details were disgusting, as in the walls of Makana’s hotel room in Siwa, speckled with red flecks, which are squashed fleas and mosquitoes, we receive them with keen interest.

The author also does a fantastic job of evoking the setting. Siwa and Cairo are both pictured so well, every little detail in place, that we actually feel ourselves transported there.

Siwa is as different from Cairo, the bustling capital, as you can imagine. The difference between the two places is quite stark. The life and hustle-bustle of Cairo is in contrast to the desolate wilderness of Siwa.

The characters, the bureaucracy in the small town, and the situations there lend themselves to some dry humour that the author delivers without taking away from the gravity of the main plot in the story.

The locale was as much of a character here. The weather conditions, the attitude and behaviour of the people, the life around and how it played out, they all play a part in rooting us in the setting. Bit by bit, Egypt seeps into us.    

 

 

The author unveiled Makana to us in the same manner. As readers, we begin to feel a regard and respect for the man, for the doggedness with which he clings to the belief that justice must be served, and the dedication with which he strives for justice, even at great personal cost.

I was intrigued with the character, in exile in a time of great strife, in the wake of the 9/11 bombing in the US, and the strife in Israel-Palestine during the period, all of which had far-reaching consequences.

In the background is the larger crisis, America easing into its self-styled role, as the policeman of the world, messing up the crisis in the Middle East. Here the author presents an indirect critique which has no bearing on the events of this story, but still informs the events of the story and why circumstances are the way they are.

I was still a child in the 1980s, and many of the events that shook the world during that time, didn’t matter to me. Here, I was able to see their implications, not only in terms of the consequences in political terms, but also for how they affected the lives of ordinary people.

 

Makana’s fears for what his country has become are my fears for my own. India too is rapidly deteriorating, an economy in shambles, rampant unemployment and mismanagement of Covid, not to mention rising hate and communal strife. In the face of all these challenges, the rabid fanatics, known as bhakts (devotees), see the majoritarian party’s espousal of strident Hindutva as being the only solution to all the problems confronting the country.

 

Parker Bilal, I’ll be looking out for more of your work. 


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