Thursday, April 28, 2022


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


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. 

Monday, April 11, 2022


Title: The Devil’s Whispers

Author: Lucas Hault

Publisher: TCK Publishing

Pages: 224

My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐


Gerard Woodward, a young lawyer, is invited to Cardiff to the castle of Lord Ferdinand Elvin Mathers who is on his death bed. The old man wants to amend his will. Very soon, he realises that he is a prisoner, locked up in his room and not allowed to leave. Meanwhile, across London there are children being abducted. There’s an ape-like creature on the prowl. Can London be saved or will evil take over the land?

The book reminds us of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. All the details point in that direction. The adversaries acting in darkness, being afraid of sunlight, eating of rats, the bite marks. The only difference here is that the author has created a mythical creature of his own, called Xana, while borrowing heavily from folklore surrounding vampires.

The author has a grip on the action sequences, but my overall impression was that it was all rather unoriginal. The inspiration from Dracula is all too evident, and there is nothing to set this tale apart. It’s fine to create a mythical supernatural adversary, but making them like vampires while calling them Xana is unacceptable.


The author creates a sense of mystery that doesn’t always seep out of the pages. I couldn’t feel the sense of intrigue. There are strange things happening in the castle. Gerard has odd dreams of being hunted. There are strange beasts chained to rooms, and strange sounds are heard.

For the most part, it’s hard to tell what the fuss is about. Lord Mathers sometimes appears to be on his deathbed and sometimes in perfect health. Gerard has no clue what’s happening. Nor do we, but with much less patience and with no fear.


The book is written as a collection of letters and journal entries by various people. These include Gerard, his fiancée Raelyn Atherton, a doctor, his best friend, Ralph Brewer, her best friend, Jayda, a nun and a priest, Fr Malcolm Isaac Simpson. Unfortunately, there are so many perspectives that they begin to sound alike. There is nothing to distinguish one from another.

The journal and letters as a form of narrative technique can be limiting. Letters work best if there are only two correspondents. The more, the messier. I thought that the use of 3rd person omniscient narration would have improved the story.

The writing consists of some words, now in disuse, and old-type sentence constructions. There were also some odd usage with regard to tenses. At one point, Raelyn’s eyes are described by Nathan, her cousin, as “savoury.” In Gerard’s journal entry, he refers to Mark Huddleston, as his ‘rival’. Adversary would have been the better word. It's not as if they are competing for the affections of the same woman.

None of the characters are developed. We get no backstory about them so it’s hard for us to care about them, and the sting of the horror falls short. The journal entries appear impersonal, and make it hard for us to relate to the characters.

In particular, Raelyn seemed totally unreal. Her anxiousness to learn the truth about a stranger, Mark Huddleston, is unbelievable. Also, she acts like a modern woman in 1903, which is unbelievable. She even uses curse words, which doesn’t fit her general persona at all. The author gives us the impression that men consulted female doctors back then as a matter of course.

The significance of the title was unclear, as was the reason for the abduction of children and the reason behind the house imprisonment of Gerard. We are not given any explanation about the Xana, their origin story, and why they exist.

All in all, not a book I’d recommend.

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

Wednesday, April 06, 2022


Title: Doorway to Murder (Blackwell and Watson Time-Travel Mysteries #1)

Author: Carol Pouliot

Publisher: Bridle Path Press

Pages: 294

My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐


This was a police procedural combined with a time travel mystery, sitting snug in the genre of a cozy mystery.


When the local bank is looted and the VP and branch manager of the bank found dead in the vault on the night of the worst blizzard in history in 1934, DS Steven Blackwell finds himself flustered by the complete lack of clues and the total lack of witnesses. While work poses a challenge, his home life is disrupted by the visions he sees at home of a strange woman dressed in odd clothing. Grief stricken after the sudden death of his mother, he thinks he is having hallucinations.

But the truth is that she is Olivia Watson, a researcher living in his house in 2014, and by some shift in time, they meet. Gradually a friendship develops between them.


At first the pace was very slow. Things look up once they meet.

There are a lot of characters in the first half of the book, and it is hard to keep track of their names.

Most of the action takes place in 1934. Steven and his team work hard but their efforts are slowed by the lack of modern tools and techniques.

The challenges of the Depression era were brought out well. In contrast, 2014 is rather bland. The only action here is Olivia telling her best friends about Steven.

The author also does a fantastic job of describing the setting, particularly with the element of the weather, in both eras.

Better editing could have improved the prose. The dialogue between the policemen was very unrealistic. Also, the character descriptions should have been done away with. After a while, one character begins to blend into another.

The best part of this time travel mystery for me was the understanding of how fascinating our technology is and how magical it might seem to someone from the past. Especially, the magic of TV and computers, printing, photography and mobile telephony.

I also enjoyed the references to books and films on various aspects of time travel. I loved the recommendations both to old favourites and to new authors.


What I found unbelievable and too pat an explanation was that the time shift had happened because both Steven and Olivia were both open to it.

But the book itself was warm and had a comfortable vibe to it.

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

Tuesday, April 05, 2022


Title: Paradox Lake

Author: Vincent Zandri

Publisher: Oceanview Publishing

Pages: 336

My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐


I understand that the whole stalker-single mom trope has been done to death, but I still opted to read this one because I haven’t read too many books of this kind. And I do believe that even the most done-to-death idea can be interesting if the writing is good.

Here sadly, it wasn’t so.


Theodore “The Wolf” Peasley, held guilty of the rape, murder and mutilation of 12-year-old Sarah Anne Moore in 1986 at Paradox Lake, has just been released after 33 years in a maximum security prison. The system believes that he is no longer the criminal that he used to be, and is no longer a threat to society. However, in the minutes before he is released, Fr Sean O’Connor, the prison chaplain, realises that Theodore is just as vile and evil. He, and we, fear the worst.

Single mum Rose Conley has experienced tragedy. Having lost her older daughter, Allison, to leukemia and her husband, Charlie, to suicide, her younger daughter, Anna, now 12 years old, is all she has. Hoping to bond with Anna, before turbulent teenage hormones take over, she books herself and Anna, into an Air BnB in an isolated, off-the-grid town called Paradox Lake, where they’ve rented the old Moore house. She has taken a semester off her work at the university where she teaches art and sculpture, and hopes to sculpt while homeschooling Anna. 

What she doesn’t know is that the Wolf is on the prowl and Anna could be in real danger.


The book is written in the present tense, in the third person PoV of the Wolf and the first person PoV of Rose. I appreciate the author for the narrative, for the details that helped to root us into the story.


You don’t have to be a parent to stress over the outcome of that situation. Right away I was fully invested in the plot, and I didn’t even know the characters well yet. Two vulnerable characters thrown in the middle of their worst nightmares.

And that’s where the trouble started. Having started well, however, it was all downhill from there. The author made Rose opt for the lamest of choices.


Rose was probably the stupidest character ever to be caught in danger. She did everything wrong, hiding the truth about Sarah from Anna, when she should have completed her research and packed and set off for home at the earliest. Metaphorically speaking, she’s the idiot horror movie character who runs into, not away from, the haunted house.

Rose’s penchant for talking to her dead husband and daughter wasn’t the problem, but her ability to receive advice from them that matched exactly the deluded action she planned to take certainly was. Nor could I understand the nonchalance with which she proceeded to drink alcohol when she had a child to look after and was stuck in the middle of nowhere, and could not afford to lose control over herself. Even when her worst nightmare comes to pass, she needs, in her own words, “the calming effects of the alcohol.”

The fact that the author is a male trying to write from a female PoV is evident. Does he really think that women think nothing of stripping naked in front of their kids, especially when the daughter is 12? On another occasion, Rose comes across a secluded beach and strips naked. What if someone were to come along? There are several references to the phrase, birthday suit, that are tedious. I was also put off by the gratuitous descriptions of the sex and violence.

The book was riddled with typos and errors. For example, And the blood, she runs thick. At another point, Rose tells us that she has tinsel strength. Did she mean tensile?

The constant use of names in a conversation of two people is another bother.


I wish the author had bothered to learn a little more about Catholics before foisting Catholicism on the characters. Catholics don’t hold rosary beads and whisper One Our Father after another as Rose tells us that Tim is doing.

The story seeks to bring the horror of the old children’s story, Little Red Riding Hood, into real life. The author constantly points out the danger by harping on the What-Big device as a way of conjuring horror. But there’s only so much of What Big Hands/Teeth/Tongue/Eyes etc that a reader can take. After a while, the excessive foreshadowing from the Wolf’s PoV becomes tiresome, undermining the whole effect.

Spoilers below: Stop reading here if you don't want to read them.


Spoilers: There was no explanation for how Tony reached Rose in time to save her. How did he know where to find her? She hadn’t told him anything. Nor are we given any indication of how Tony happened to get a bad feeling on the very day when the worst was about to come to pass.

Rose believes Tim, a man she met hours ago, when he says that Ed is harmless even though her own instincts are warning her that something is off with the man. Even when the name, Theodore, smacks her hard with its uncanny, unbelievable coincidence, she doesn’t question it.

She doesn’t even find it odd that Tim is being touchy feely with Anna or that he says she is attractive.

She justifies the belief by believing in Tim’s goodness, based on his good looks and others positive traits. The romance with Tim distracts her from the real danger. Once the romance takes off, she completely forgets about Anna’s educational needs. What’s worse, she seems to forget that she had initiated this trip in order to spend more time with her daughter. Suddenly leaving Anna alone in the house is not a problem at all.

It is the height of coincidence that Fr O’Connor, the Prison Chaplain, is the priest at the local Catholic church in Paradox Lake.


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

Friday, April 01, 2022

Book Review: DUNMOOR

Title: Dunmoor
Author: London Clarke
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Pages: 367
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

This is my second book by London Clarke. The first was The Neighbour.

The book covers a period of two years from 1817 to 1819.

In the Prologue, we come to know of a mysterious letter sent by Lord Drake Winters to his half-sister, Augusta, hinting at a dark secret in their past. Lord Winters has just sold the ancestral house, Dunmoor, to Luke Lennox, who intends to convert it into a home and school for orphans and foundlings.

Lady Helena Winters, abandoned by her husband, Drake, is already reeling from the scandal. Her father takes her to Dunmoor, with the intention of investing in Lennox’ efforts and helping his daughter get over her sorrow.

At Dunmoor, Helena’s father falls in and they are forced to extend their stay, enabling both her and Luke to witness the strange and frightful events together.

Once there, Helena is dragged into the terrors that inhabit Dunmoor and its surroundings.

Will these terrors defeat Luke's plans? Will Helena and Luke get out alive? 

The book is written in the 3rd person past tense point of view of Helena and Luke.

Early on, the author creates a deliciously creepy vibe. There is something otherworldly about Dunmoor House. Shadows appear and footsteps sound when no one is around, and the forest behind the house is dark and menacing. The trees seem to be alive, and keep coming closer to the house.

The scenes about the terrors at Dunmoor and in the forest were well written but the overall impression wasn’t one of horror at all. There was a surfeit of evil entities involved and that undermined the effect. 

There are ghosts. There is the evil of child sexual abuse, rape, incest, devil worship and orgies. This excess weight causes the book to totter under the burden.

The story also seemed to lose focus for a while when Luke, frightened by the supernatural horrors he sees in the forest, flees to London and gives in to a life of drinking and gambling as a way to forget those evils.

That Lennox and Helena will have a romantic relationship is a foregone conclusion, but the manner in which they fall in love is rather rushed. Nor does Lennox come across as particularly noble or courageous. He has lost Penelope, his fiancée, but he doesn’t spend too much time grieving for her.

On the contrary, I found Alex Jameson, in spite of his rakish image, far more compelling.

Helena is academically inclined and enjoys studying Maths and Geometry, pluses in my opinion, but she isn’t written with any sense of warmth.

I ended up warming more to Lady Persephone than to Helena. The former has suffered through a lot. It couldn’t have been easy living in those times on her own terms. The story written from her viewpoint would have been even better.

Also, it would have been better if the children had played a more active role in this book. None of the kids here have been endowed with personalities, making it hard for us as readers to invest in them. It is Lennox and Helena who are made to appear larger-than-life for their efforts to ‘save’ the children.

Even poor Lucy is given short shrift. Just because she is poor, it seems as if Helena is dismissive of her feelings for Luke, and tells Lucy that some other working class individual with a bland personality is better suited to her. And this when she and Luke have not yet acknowledged their feelings for each other.

On the whole, this book didn’t meet my expectations. I will not be awaiting Book 2 of this duology.

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


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