Tuesday, November 29, 2022


Title: Small Deaths

Author: Rijula Das
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Pages: 319
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Lalee is a sex worker at the Blue Lotus brothel in Calcutta's biggest red-light district, Shonagacchi. Tilu Shau, her most loyal client and a far-from-bestselling author of erotic fiction, longs to liberate her from the brothel by offering her marriage. His plan is scuttled when one of the prostitutes, Mohamaya Mondol, is murdered. Her death opens a vacancy and Lalee is offered a room on the top floor along with the chance to be an A-category sex worker. 

The move promises to catapult her into the big league, a life of luxury, wealth and access. But it only sends her tumbling down into a vortex of corruption and violence controlled by a perverted godman, Maharaj.

An NGO, Nari Shakti Vahini, joins hands with the Sex Workers' Collective to demand justice for the dead girl, even as the police, led by the largely incompetent Samsher Singh, who hopes the to-do will blow over. But then the media picks up the story and Inspector Singh is under pressure to do something. 

Will he rise to the occasion? Will there be any justice for the dead girl? 

The book is written in the 3rd person omniscient past tense PoV of Lalee, Tilu and Samsher. The title of the book refers to how the French describe an orgasm as a small death. But I also saw it as referring to the deaths of all the people who died and those whose lives were destroyed by the government's decision to demonetise currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000. 

The book, set in the aftermath of demonetisation, reminds us of the struggles faced by sex workers, a group of people that no one cared about, when their clients suddenly found themselves unable to pay. The book reminds us how this draconian policy destroyed millions of ordinary lives, costing people untold sums of hard-earned money. The small deaths, even as the government congratulated itself on a decision that killed the economy, refers to the deaths of these people too.

I didn't care much for Lalee, but Tilu grew on me. Tilu has an enduring love not only for Lalee, but also for Kolkata, his enduring muse. He longs to write fiction set in a time before the city was born, but his publisher demands he spend time writing erotica.

I also liked Samsher at the beginning. He doesn't want to be a hero, to save the trafficked girls or clean up the city. He barely has the guts to stand up to his own mother. All he wants to do is to accept bribes and live an easy life. He's not very bright and can barely ask the right questions during an investigation. Unfortunately, his character arc didn't progress at all.

Even though the book is written in English, it captures well the mood and the vibe of the locale, as if English were just another Indian language. The tone of the book is partly critical, partly indulgent. The authorial eye has no patience for Grown men with hands inside their pants...such a commonplace scene in metropolitan Calcutta that no one had paid him any attention. 

The writing was good. Sample these:

Creative energy, like a gassy stomach, will make itself known.

We are an expletive; a whole population of women connected only by their livelihood reduced to a single word of offense... every woman is turned into a profanity.

The fact that they built lives and homes there in the midst of their sordidness is described as A mangled, tenuous dignity, one with tread marks all over it, but sometimes even that is a lot.

The subject, which revolves around the trafficking of girls as young as seven years of age, is sordid and can drive one to despair, but the author doesn't let anything get in the way of her story. She also makes the point that sex workers don't always need saving, unless they are minors. They just need space to be, to live their lives without being criminalised, even as the clients get away scot-free. 

The author makes a case for letting them live their lives with dignity, and mentions the hatred that respectable middle-class women held in their hearts for prostitutes. People like us who speak out from our positions of privileged innocence.

Even the men who sleep with the prostitutes are not spared by the author. Lalee reflects on how prior to committing the sexual act, some customers wanted to know their names, their stories. Hunting for a story, for a fleshy bit of human tragedy. But Lalee, when pressed in this manner, always gives a fake story. When you lost everything, your name and your story were the only unoccupied country.

I couldn't understand the focus on Vishal Currimbhoy, the husband of Deepa Marhatta, who runs the Sex Workers' Collective. Why were there chapters devoted to him, when he had nothing to do with the plot of the story?  Incidentally, Vishal is a Hindu name, and Currimbhoy is a Khoja Muslim name. Yet the author tells us that Vishal is a Parsi, which doesn't sound right. 

We are also given a peek into Samsher's life, his relationship with his mother and wife. Again, this glimpse didn't fit in with the plot.

The book began well, and the middle was strong too, but towards the end, it seemed to lose steam. We get no closure on what happened to the seven-year-old twin girls kidnapped at the ashram, and even though Lalee is the protagonist, we feel emotionally invested in those girls. Also, was the godman punished, or did he get away? There were too many questions left unanswered. I was disappointed in the ending. 

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

Friday, November 25, 2022

Book Review: NEVER LET GO

Title: Never Let Go

Author: Lori Duffy Foster

Publisher: Level Best Books

Pages: 271

My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐


Carla Murphy and Rachel have been best friends since they were ten years of age. But now Carla barely remembers this Rachel, in whose basement she has been trapped. She remembers coming over to Rachel’s house with her six-month-old baby Christopher for lunch, but now there’s no sign of Christopher. What’s worse, Carla’s husband, Nick, thinks she has taken off with the baby.

Rachel tells her that she has been planning this since she got to know of Carla’s pregnancy, and she has no intention of letting her leave. 

If Rachel doesn't have her way with Nick, she will kill both Nick and Carla. Carla will have to help Rachel seduce her own husband in order to keep herself and her husband alive. 

Meanwhile, Sawyer Hamill, police chief, comes to know that a body of a young teen, Leland Boise, presumably killed 15 years ago, has been found. He wonders if Carla fled because she had something to do with it.

Will Carla get out of the basement alive? Will she ever find her way to her husband and son? Or will Rachel succeed in her aim of getting into a relationship with Nick? Will Nick get over Carla? Or will he keep looking for her?

The book is writen in the 3rd person limited past tense PoV. The plot advances through three perspectives, that of Carla, Nick and Sawyer.

At first, it’s not clear how the Boise case might be linked with that of Carla and Christopher. In the end, the two mysteries don’t get resolved concurrently, I had expected them to be related somehow, but it wasn’t so.

Once one mystery was resolved, the book became more character driven, and the second mystery was put on the back burner. A cold case getting colder.

The book was well written, and the action paced well. I felt invested in the characters. Once there was a breakthrough in the first mystery, I thought the excitement generated would peter out. But it actually went up a few notches.

While I liked the action scenes and the emotions they drew out, there wasn’t much in terms of the investigation. In the end, both cases, though unrelated, were solved on the basis of the same type of clue.

Carla was a stronger character than Nick, who had precious little to do. He was more reactive than proactive.

There were a lot of grammatical issues. The author used allude instead of elude, and allusion instead of illusion.

The end was unexpected. It made me feel a little sad that justice isn’t always meted out the way we’d like it to be.

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


Title: How to Write a Novel in 20 Pies

Author: Amy Wallen

Illustrator: Emil Wilson

Publisher: Andrew McMeel Publishing

Pages: 240

My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The whole point of this part writing craft, part cookbook, and part memoir is to draw parallels between the process of writing a novel and that of baking a pie from scratch. On the surface, the concept of the book is so simple. You might think it won’t fit on the shelf of writing craft books. But its strength lies in its simplicity, in the warm and friendly vibe it gives out. The author’s style, so approachable, reassures us that novel writing is possible and, if we persevere, we could do it too.

I found this book adorable; even the dedications hark back to the theme. At regular intervals, the pages are peppered with helpful icons that tell us, Eat Pie Here.

The chapters have creative names such as Pie as Saving Grace, Pie Butt in Chair etc. Easy As Pie and Other Lies reminds us of the misconceptions that writing is easy.

None of the information that the author shares is new. She tells us we have to write a lot and often, that we must be loose with our ideas and not hang on to anything too tightly, that we must read like writers. She shares one important thing that other writing books don’t reinforce often enough, that we should save the bits we cut in a Trash file, in case we think we need them later. It is sound advice, but it feels diluted because of all the other fun stuff.

Along the way, she hands out writing advice particularly relating to the long, slow road to publishing, and offers recommendations on which books to read to know more about the craft. She also takes us along on her own journey towards publishing MoonPies and Movie Stars, her first book, and relates her experience of teaching the craft of writing to students. Above all, she reiterates that she learned how to write a novel by writing a novel.


The 20 recipes in the book include Basic Pie Crust, Chicken Pot Pie, Lemon Meringue Pie, Mushroom Hand Pies, No Guarantee Peach Pie etc, including a recipe for making Humble Pie, the only recipe for which I have all the ingredients. The author shares her pie making journey too, the successes and failures in the early days, and how she practised and got better.

The illustrations, mostly with a red colour palette, were delightful and inviting, and complemented the book well. Emil Wilson has done a great job. The characters drawn by him look like Teletubbies but wear black glares and pretend they are into cloak-and-dagger stuff. There are sweet drawings of a book and a pie dancing together, and of a pie offering therapy to a book writer.

There is a fun boardgame for the writing process and interesting illustrations about famous authors and the imagined ingredients of their pies. For instance, Hemingway’s pie is made of booze, fish, game, cigar and more booze. Agatha Christie’s pie – Who knows?


The author has even included a comic strip about this book and why the publisher might have agreed to publish it, hoping to get pie, of course. On an amusing side note, the publisher is called McMeel. 

If you’re looking for hard core writing advice, this book isn’t it. But as a pie cookbook-cum-writing craft book, it is a sweet, savoury and fun read. 

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

Monday, November 21, 2022

Book Review: GHOST HOUSE

Title: Ghost House

Author: Sara Connell
Publisher: Muse Literary
Pages: 143
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


The house that sculptor Caitlin and her currently unemployed school teacher husband John are considering buying is haunted by a ghost in the titular story, Ghost House. It is one of the selling points of the house. Caitlin isn't convinced but John insists that the ghost is a benign presence. They move in and John won't believe her, that the ghost isn't benign at all. Soon Caitlin will learn how right she is. But will it be too late for her?

The author begins with a bang. The titular story, skillfully juggles the themes of art, motherhood and unrequited desires, and is impactful.

Les Grenouilles (the Frogs, in French) is hard to summarise. It's about a group of school girls, one of whom develops a mutation that prevents her growth and requires surgery. Her friends, including the unnamed narrator, are convinced that frogs' blood will heal her. This story combines the fear of disease with the hope brought on by miracle cures and the hold that religions and psychotropic drugs can have on humans.

Terroir is about a girl's feelings of terror towards her sense of her own body and sex, as also the sense of terror generated among women by the beauty and fitness industries. Terroir is actually defined as the complete natural environment of a wine, including factors such as soil, topography and climate. But, in English, it made sense as the terror generated in an environment that thrives on hounding women to care more than necessary about their physical appearance, thriving on the creation of fear around false imperfections.

In Girls, the narrator was an unusual one. A neon poster outside a brothel, one that serves as its mascot and pulls in the customers, addresses us. This one is about the fear that respectable society feels towards the sex industry.

Marionettes was another story I liked. Kate, on the verge of an engagement with boyfriend, Dan, expects to be proposed to while on holiday in Prague. Instead, her childhood fear relating to marionettes is revived until it ends with the worst outcome for her.

In Tarifa, we read about a horrific incident in the life of the unnamed mother of our unnamed narrator. As a young girl, the unnamed mother and her two friends, while on the road between Marbella and Tarifa in Spain, are propositioned and threatened at knifepoint. I was impressed with this one too. This story is to do with the fear of sexual assault.

Night Sky is a little vague. Ned's girlfriend, Joyce, a talented, atheistic artist with a scientific bent of mind, is increasingly taken with a lot of New Age things. When she vanishes, the residents of the trailer park where she lived begin to believe that she has been abducted by aliens. Will Ned find the answers he seeks?

Powell's Priests is about a people who overlook the sins of the priests because of the honey they bring them. It is the shortest story in this book, a little over a page. 

In One More, a woman who has dreams about impending disasters, realises that all things destructive are named after women. She feels that her dreams have caused her to be shunned by people, as if I were a ghost.

In Salad, the narrator, stuck home due to a medical condition, becomes obsessed with a famous actress. This story takes a deliciously creepy turn towards the end.

In Unending Day, the unnamed narrator has lost her promotion after calling a colleague an expletive. The boss forces her to sign up for therapy, but the therapist, it appears, won't let her leave.

Not My Body is a poem.

I had been expecting more of a paranormal vibe. These stories were more about women and girls hounded and, in some cases, doing the hounding themselves. A few of the stories could have improved with better punctuation. I liked this author's writing style and the stories themselves. 

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2022


Title: The Girl On The Train

Author: Paula Hawkins
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Pages: 336
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Rachel takes the train to London every morning and returns to the room she rents in the evening. She has been dismissed from her job due to her drinking problem, but continues to commute to London, in the hope of catching sight of her ex-Tom who still lives in her old house, by the side of the railway tracks, with his new wife, Anna, with whom he cheated on Rachel, and their little baby

A few doors down from her old house live a couple that Rachel thinks of as Jess and Jason. Lonely and broken after her divorce, she has had no meaningful physical contact in a long time, and she voyeuristically imagines the lives of this young couple.

Still suffering on account of Tom’s unfaithfulness, she comes to know that Jess is cheating on Jason. When she sees a missing person poster with a picture of Jess, Rachel learns that her real name is Megan Hipwell, and decides to tell Jason (real name, Scott) about his wife’s affair.

Her involvement is the point at which the barren, divorced, nearly homeless Rachel discovers that her problems are going to get worse. The police believe that Rachel knows more about Megan’s disappearance than she’s willing to admit. But Rachel has no memory of the night Megan disappeared.

Could she have had something to do with Megan’s disappearance and subsequent fate?


The book is written in the alternate first person present tense PoV of Rachel and Megan at different timelines, with the occasional first person present tense PoV of Anna. Of these, Rachel is as unreliable a narrator as can be imagined. She gets drunk and then does things that the sober version of her would baulk at.

At first, it’s hard to tell how Rachel and Megan are related. The only thing they seem to have in common is an acquaintance with Anna and Tom. Gradually we come to know of other things they share. Both have been broken by the tragedies that they have faced. Both lives have been marred by a close acquaintance with the themes of the book, which are loneliness and motherhood, love and loss.


As a long-time, long-distance suburban train commuter, I had been looking forward to reading this book ever since I heard of its title. I liked the way, the author clued us in on the setting. The trundling of the trains is the soundtrack against which the book plays out.

Much of the writing for most of the book appears fragmented, and we are left trying to piece together insufficient clues, until nearly the end of the book when the clouds are suddenly lifted, and things begin to become clear.

Here’s a sample of the writing:

The holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mould yourself through the gaps

It’s impossible to resist the kindness of strangers.

There’s nothing so painful, so corrosive, as suspicion.


The author does a great job with Rachel. I felt sorry for her, her loneliness and her alcoholism, as a result of that loneliness. Even though it is clear that she is an unreliable narrator, I couldn’t help warming to her as I understood the troubles she’d had to overcome, how far she had slipped away from a happy life. I felt for her, the pain of having a marriage break up on account of your spouse’s infidelity, then the torture of seeing him happy with his beautiful family while you struggle to hold it together.

In recent years, I find myself impatient with the accounts of narrators who have a drinking problem, but here Rachel’s alcohol addiction feels organic, a consequence of all that she has suffered in her life. Through it all, I rooted for her as one would root for a bullied child.

What I didn’t care for was how almost every one, Scott, Anna, even Tom, made disparaging remarks about Rachel’s appearance.


Title: The Unfinished Clue

Author: Georgette Heyer
Publisher: Arrow
Pages: 320
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐


This book had the air of a cozy mystery.

General Sir Arthur Billington=Smith is an insufferable boor to everyone who comes in contact with him. His first wife left him and her little son, Geoffrey, behind and ran away with someone. Now he is married to Fay, a woman many years his junior, and he persists in making life miserable for her.

On one fateful weekend, he manages to annoy a houseful of guests. He disinherits his son, who had just announced his engagement with Lola De Sola, a cabaret dancer from Mexico. He gets into an argument with nephew Francis, who wants his uncle to pay his debts, and he humiliates Fay by openly flirting with Camilla Halliday, whose husband Basil resents his host and is in need of money. Then there is Stephen Guest who worships Fay and resents Arthur’s treatment of her. The final member of the party is Dinah Fawcett, Fay’s younger sister, who dislikes her brother-in-law and is disliked in turn.

The entry of the Vicar and his wife, the Chudleighs, and Mrs Twining, old friend of Arthur, adds more disagreement to the mix. There’s potential for trouble as guests speak their mind without a care for the consequences.

When Arthur is found stabbed in his study, Inspector Harding of Scotland Yard has no dearth of suspects. How will he find the killer?

The book, written in the last century, reeks of Britain’s colonialism, and is entrenched in the British empire’s innate sense of its own superiority. Even on the rare occasion when it makes fun of the English, it manages to convey that they are still far superior to everyone else.

The writing wasn’t bad, but the book takes far too long to establish the relationships between the characters and their individual eccentricities. As late as page 64, the threats mentioned on the back of the book hadn’t come about. The murder finally takes place on page 89.

As in the case of most murder mysteries involving large house parties, I didn’t bother suspecting anyone. I knew it would be a wasted effort. I guessed the full meaning of the unfinished clue, but, like Inspector Harding, I took it to the wrong conclusion.

More than the investigation, what I enjoyed were the character portraits that the author drew. The manners, foibles and character traits distinguish the characters. Most of the characters are true to their types. Stephen Guest is the strong, silent type, while Fay is the wilting lily. Lola and Camilla are self-centred. The vicar and his wife enjoy gossiping while pretending to have a holiness they do not possess.

Lola and Camilla are both engrossed in themselves and see themselves as the centre of the universe. Mrs Twining alone works as the voice of reason. Ever Dinah, whose limited PoV serves as the book’s narrator, isn’t without censure when it comes to antagonising Arthur. The only reason why she isn’t on the list of the suspects is that the author probably wants to smooth out all obstacles in the way of the romance. For this reason, she is given an obviously convenient alibi that no one questions, thereby enabling Inspector Harding to nurture his attraction towards her.

At first the romance is slow and unobtrusive, but it very quickly takes centre stage to the extent that we are not given closure on what happened subsequently to a number of the characters.

I liked Dinah’s witty repartee with everyone else, and her non-nonsense attitude, as also her bond with her sister. The author has written some of the cleverest lines for her. Fay, on the other hand, could have done with a little more spirit.

Also, it would have been nice to have a series with Inspector Harding. It was foolish of him to chuck up what might have been an entertaining career (for us), just to get married to Dinah and keep house with her.


Title: The Boyfriend

Author: Daniel Hurst

Publisher: Inkubator Books
Pages: 207
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐


The pace picks up from the Prologue when the authorial voice stokes up our interest. The Prologue interested me. I wanted to see which way this would go.


Adele Davies is engaged to be married to Tom Barton, her sixth and final boyfriend. Busy with her wedding planning, she learns that her first boyfriend, Shaun Gibson, has hanged himself.

Two days later, she learns that her second boyfriend, Calum Jenkins, has died in a car crash. And then it is the turn of Ryan Harris, her third boyfriend, who also dies suddenly.

Any suspicion that her past boyfriends are being targeted and eliminated is confirmed when she gets a text message saying, Three down, three to go.

But the police dismiss her allegations. And her best friend and her fiancé don’t believe her either. And when she tries to warn potential victims off, it doesn’t work either. Will she be able to keep Tom safe? And who is responsible for all these deaths?


The book is written in the first person present tense PoV of Adele. It’s only in Chapter 10 that we become aware of another PoV character, an unknown person known simply as The Boyfriend.


I struggled to like Adele. I’m always impatient with characters whose fondness for liquor impairs their judgement. Here, Adele’s crazy social drinking is clearly setting her up for trouble. She keeps downing booze, despite repeated hangovers. She doesn’t seem to understand that she couldn’t live a functional life if she kept drinking that way. Plus, she’s had a mysterious head injury at the age of 16, the details of which she has never been able to remember. All these factors make her an unreliable narrator.


Adele is not one of those characters, whose problems keep adding up. Things get worse, but not for her. Here she has one problem. She’s the character who nobody believes.


I found Tom too controlling and jealous, not at all the epitome of perfection that Adele believed he was. It was also odd that Adele’s family shows up at the very last minute. She doesn’t have any relationship with them for most of the book.


Some of the stuff that Adele tells us is strange. For instance, she says that Shaun’s parents welcomed her into their family, even though they must have known that at our age, there was a good chance the romance wasn’t going to last forever. Why would Shaun’s parents think that way? Shaun is 36, and his parents are in their mid-50s, we are told, so of course theirs was a teenage romance too, and they’re still going strong 36 years later.


The tone of the narrative was a mix between thinking aloud and sharing confidences with us readers, and I liked that. The chapters ended on a thought-provoking note.

The manner in which each boyfriend was introduced was interesting. The back stories were sufficiently diverse and well written.

I’ve read two other books by this author, and I can say that he has improved greatly. This book didn’t have any of the issues that I had with his previous books.

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


Title: A Familiar Stranger

Author: AR Torre
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Pages: 275
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Lillian Smith, wife, mother and professional obituary writer, is neglected by her husband Mike, despite obeying all his written and unwritten rules. When she comes to know of her husband’s affair over a long period, she feels betrayed and longs to lash out at him. So when she meets David Laurent, she embarks on a steamy affair with him. What she tells him about herself is a lie, based on the personal details of a dead woman that Lillian has used to invent a new persona for herself.

While in this persona, she is cool and elegant, a sophisticated woman. So well is she written that we, like David, believe in the lie of the persona.

But Lillian isn’t the only person who is leading a double life.


The book is written in the first person past tense PoV of Lillian, and occasionally of Mike, besides a few chapters from two other PoVs. The main narrative is punctuated by Lillian’s riddle tweets, where she invites her followers to play guessing games about who has died. She is obsessed with death.

The narrative is divided into several parts, including Two Months Before the Death, Six Weeks Before the Death, One Month Before the Death, Two Weeks Before the Death, One Week Before the Death, and Now. These sections count down to a death, and yet we have no clue who is the character that will die. But it feels important, given that Lillian writes obituaries for a living. The section, One Week Before the Death, ends without us being any wiser about who has died.


This isn’t a typical whodunit. Past the 55 percent mark, we still don’t know who is dead. Like the followers of Lillian’s Twitter account, we are left guessing which of the characters has died, piecing together the clues that the author has casually thrown our way. The big twist, the identity of the victim, comes at nearly the 59 percent mark.


While Mike makes no secret of the fact that he is hiding something and that he is controlling his wife, we find ourselves slowly getting to know Lillian and trusting her, until she shows herself to be an unreliable narrator.


There are just a few characters, and yet they all seemed important in the light of what is going to happen.

Lillian has the most delicious, self-deprecating humour. I haven’t seen it done so well in quite a while. I also liked her choice of job. She makes people look good in their obits, giving them a dignity that they might have lacked in life. While she is too emotional, Mike denies his emotions, and is clinical, practical and detached, even in the midst of deep personal crisis.

I wish there had been more of Jacob, Lillian’s son. His emotions towards his parents were barely discussed, and I would have liked to see more of him.

I didn’t appreciate the manner in which the identity of the murderer is revealed. It’s always better when another character figures things out, than when the murderer admits their crime.


Here are some quotes from the book:
Don’t wait up. The three most telling words in a marriage.

Intelligence was the gravity that pinned all the pieces onto the board.

A callus began to grow around my feelings for Mike.


Chapter 48 is a gut-wrenching expression of grief.


There were some typos that will hopefully be addressed. All in all, I liked this book.


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


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...