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The Girl On The Train By Paula Hawkins

IMG_2288-2The book kept turning up on my best seller list. So I had to read it. My daughter in law gave me a gift coupon to a popular book store in Chennai which I splurged on four novels, one of them being, The Girl On The Train.

I loved the book and I read it in one day. The easy flow of the language was an added bonus.

The story is narrated by three women and not one of them is a reliable person. Without exception they are all unsteady characters – cheat, alcoholic, manipulative. This makes the narration all the more interesting. Nice girls are boring, right?

Wee bit of the story. Rachel travels by the same train every day, which stops at a red signal without fail. She looks into the houses beyond the tracks and imagines the lives of the people she sees for a moment twice every day. She is particularly interested in a couple and thinks them to be the happiest couple on earth and compares her shattered horrible existence with them. But one day while she looks out of her train window, she sees the woman with another man in an amorous interlude. Later when the papers announce that the woman was missing, presumed dead and the husband was the main suspect, she feels that she has to step in and set matters right.

The story takes off from there at an express train speed and does not stop till the culprit is apprehended.

The story is told as a first person account of Rachel the woman on the train, Megan the woman who goes missing and Anna the second wife of Tom, Rachel’s husband. The only thing that I found a little lame was the killer narrating the sequence of events to Rachel and Anna in the last chapter. It was as if the author wanted every bit of the tale to be bundled and neatly tied and served to the readers.

I would definitely recommend this fast faced psychological thriller to kill a boring afternoon or take with you for holiday reading.

 

The Book Thief By Markus Zusak

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was highly recommended on Goodreads. It was not available in my library and I could not wait to read it. So I ordered it on Flipkart. It was worth every rupee spent.

Let me say at the outset that I am not sure if everyone would like it. It is not filled with plots and sub plots, nor is it peopled by phenomenal characters. And it is set during the Second World War, a time period which does not appeal to many people.

I have read two other books of the Nazi era. They are, The Boy In the Stripped Pyjamas by John Boyne and The Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank. Though the truth depicted in the first book is much debated and the second is an authentic diary, I was much moved by them. This is the third book from that period depicting the disruption of the life of innocent children.

The Book Thief is classed under young adult fiction in some countries which might keep many adults from reaching for it. That would be their loss.

The Book Thief is the story of a young German girl Liesel living with foster parents in Germany. It is the story of how the girl learns to read, how she robs a few books to add to her book collection and how Liesel and her foster parents  hide a Jew in their basement. It is also the story of her friends, school mates and  neighbours and of how they face the distress caused by war. And the girl writes a book about this period in her life.

What makes this simple story stand out is that it is narrated by DEATH. Many people call it a gimmick because the story could have stood on its own. But I am not complaining as some of the most beautiful prose you can read, is uttered by Death.

In this novel, Death is not all black. In the introduction pages itself Death says that it can be cheerful, amiable and affable. But it cannot be nice, because being nice has nothing to do with death. For Death declares, “I meet everyone, once.”

Death acts as a spoilsport and informs us beforehand whose soul it is going to be carrying away next. But that is all right as being forewarned is good, especially if Death was going to carry away my favourite character in the novel, Rudy. Even Death is sad while carrying his soul away and says, “He does something to me that boy. Everytime. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.”

The novel is more than 500 pages long, but there is no hurried movement of story forward. It is filled with pages and pages of beautifully coined and well-worded descriptions about the lives of German kids during the war torn years. We are told about their games, their thieving, their petty squabbles, their love hate relationship and also their hiding in a basement during air raids. The adults are not depicted as Nasty Nazis, but as normal people with their every day living to do and people to love.

I cannot say enough about the crisp and effective language of Markus Zusak. Every page is filled with lines that tug at your heart and makes you read them one more time to let it all sink in.

Finally, when I finished reading this book and closed it with a sigh, my eyes were moist.

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The Books I Read In December 2015.

IMG_20151015_112002Desperate in Dubai by Ameera Al Hakawati

“Oozing with men, money, and Maseratis, Dubai is the ultimate playground for the woman who knows her Louboutins from her Louis Vuittons…” It is the story of four women coming from different countries and different backgrounds trying to find love in Dubai.

Though I read the book in one sitting I did not like it very much. It is more like the Desperate Housewives and Sex in the City series and also reminds you of Jackie Collins novels.

The novel depicts women only as being vindictive and desperate for male attention. As for the language, it is not a literary masterpiece.

 

 

 

Wish You Well by David BaldacciIMG_20160109_112318

Young-adults would have lapped up this book. The protagonist is a precocious twelve-year old. That will tell you why I did not care for this book.

It is the story of a brother and sister who lose their dad in an accident, which also leaves their mother in a comatose state. They get shipped off from New York City to their great grand mother’s house in rural Virginia where there is no electricity, no running water and yet they fit in so easily.

Reminded me so much of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. Only it was all of the famous cousins’ adventures rolled into one mega book.

 

 

 

IMG_20151015_112011The Gift by Cecelia Ahern

I picked up this book because I liked the cover. I thought it would be a nice feel good book with lots of romance and cute characters as the cover had a nice Christmassy look to it.

But this an intriguing book with mystery and magic woven into its story.It is the story of Lou Suffern who is so immersed in his work that he had no time for his family. How he gets a “gift of time” and chance to make good his mistakes forms the story.

I was really moved by the last chapter of the novel and was in fact totally shaken by the concluding paragraph. I felt a little depressed for a day or two after reading this story.

 

Half Girlfriend By Chetan Bhagat.

10731047_10204941661691619_5238135348052195596_nI read Chetan Bhagat’s latest offering, “Half Girlfriend” and I was really upset as to how indifferent India’s hottest selling author had become. It is almost as if CB had written the novel without effort. It is just a lackadaisical attempt on the part of CB to churn out a few pages of writing and hope that publicity, a catchy title and his mega fame would sell the book.

The hero is from the village with a complex that his English is not good. But he has raging hormones. Through out the story/film he can think of nothing but kissing the heroine. He even has a bunch of half-baked cronies who goad him on.

The heroine is beautiful, plays basketball. (Chance to wear short clothes). She leads the hero on and even goes to his hostel room and lies on his bed. But when it comes to some action, she cries foul and bolts, right into the arms of a rich arrogant wolf.

But our hero’s mom is a Nirupa Roy character – the good mother who runs a non-profit school for the backward. The villain’s mom is flashy and cruel. The other characters in the novel are also archetypes who  fill in  pre ordained slots.

Half Girlfriend is just a rehash of all the old movies from the 50s and 60s. A Sunil Dutt and Waheeda Rehman would do justice to a film/story like this.

The story is decades old. (Spoiler Alert): Poor boy meets rich girl. Instant attraction. Love blossoms. A misunderstanding. They separate. Girl marries villain. Boy chucks up good job to work in his mother’s village school. Few years later boy meets girl again who is divorced and so way is clear for the boy to take off from where he left. Just when they are romancing in the village, our typical Indian mother does not want her son to marry a divorcee (OMG) and so the girl flees after feigning that she is dying of cancer. A few years later her diary turns up. Our hero dumps it in….Chetan Bhagat’s room, (Chance for CB to do a cameo in the film) CB  discovers that our heroine may be alive. So a chase across continents begins and in a filmy coincidence the two  lovers unite.

I forgot, Bill Gates makes an appearance in this novel, which is the only concession to modernity

I wonder if Chetan Bhagat really wrote this novel or he had some kind of an app in which he fed a few details and it did the rest.

I cannot comment on the language of the novel as CB delights in using simple English. But saying, the hero took the ‘yellow’ taxi too often or the American girl friends spoke American English or describing the heroine as having long hands, long legs and long fingers is taking simplicity too far.

I just saw that my 16-year-old niece has bought this novel and has updated her status on Facebook as “Can’t wait to read this book.” And her friends have commented, “Me too” or “Me next.”

With fans like these, CB can afford to rest on his laurels….. for sometime.

 

 

Runaway By Alice Munro

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Runaway is a collection of short stories by the Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro.

 When I spied this book at the library I was only too eager to pick it up. I love short stories. Maybe I have a short attention span, or I am a true Gemini and I like variety. So I always chose short story collection over novels. I was glad I did.

 It is a book of extraordinary stories about love and its infinite betrayals and surprises” claims the back cover of the book. I must agree with that whole-heartedly.

 The first story in the collection, is called ‘Runaway.’ It is really about a runaway goat, which gets killed in the end. But it is also about the heroine who has runaway from all things familiar, to make a runaway marriage with a man who is nothing like what she imagined him to be. Her second attempt at running away from him also does not materialize. The story ends with a veiled threat that she could end up like the kid, dead.

 Then there are three stories about the same person Juliet told over the years. In the first story, she is young and moves in to live with a man whom she meets on a train journey. The second story tells of her visit to her parents’ home with her baby and how her unmarried status has been the cause of much shame to them. The third story is about Juliet’s daughter now an adult, who has runaway from home to lead a conventional and traditional life and Juliet waits, eagerly at first and then without much hope, for her return.

 The story ‘Passion’ is about a young girl who has everything going for her with her fiancé’s family but spoils it by a foolish outing with his stepbrother.

 ‘Trespasses,’ deals with a young girl who has no way knowing if she was adopted or not. The last story ‘Powers,’ which is also, the longest, deals with a woman who has the gift of clairvoyance and what happens or does not happen to her, told from the viewpoint of her friend.

 The story that I like the best was ‘Tricks.’ It stayed with me even after I had read the whole book. It is about a girl who tries to rise above her poor circumstances by going to watch Shakespeare’s plays every year. There she makes a strange friend, a foreigner and a clock mender. They agree to meet a year later to consummate their love. But fate plays a trick on her. She meets his belligerent twin that day and jumps to conclusions.

 The girl finds out the truth, many years later. But that lamentable day had changed her life forever. Munro’s prose is classic as she paints a word-perfect picture of the heroine’s thoughts when she discovers how she had erred. “Shakespeare should have prepared her. Twins are often the reason for mix-ups and disasters in Shakespeare. A means to an end, those tricks are supposed to be. And in the end the mysteries are solved, the pranks are forgiven, true love or something like it is rekindled, and those who were fooled have the good grace not to complain.”

 Munro’s stories are not short stories in the true sense of the word. They are more like long stories, sometimes even 65 pages long. Many people might find it humdrum and dull and more like a rambling documentation of people who live mediocre lives.

 All the stories are somber and a little dreary. The stories are set solely in Munro homeland, Canada and take place in small towns. Munro’s characters are not glossy or magnificent or from the upper echelons of society. There are definitely no bureaucrats or pop stars or the high rich.

Her characters are stoic people, housewives, students, teachers, mothers, children and men and women who run stables, or grow fruits and make jam and butter. These are people, who strive to make ends meet or make relationships work. These are people whom we can relate to, even though we live in a different country far far away from Munro’s Canada.

 Nothing is larger than life in her stories. The seemingly effortless narration is mostly from a woman’s viewpoint. The heroines recollect things that happened many years ago, with mature intelligence and sometime regret. Time is the best healer. But what is passed is passed, and they have no way of changing it. The cruelest words in the English are supposed to be, “If only.” Munro’s tales bear testimony to that.

 Her compositions are  unpretentious. But you cannot deny that they are masterful.

 And how do you end the review of a Nobel Prize winners work?

 I only have these clichéd words:

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 You can love or hate Munro’s stories. But you cannot ignore them.

The Secret Life Of Bees By Sue Monk Kidd

unnamed-4Book Review:

This book was recommended on a blog I was following and I picked it up without looking at reviews by other critics.

Only after I started to read it, I realized it that it was aimed at young adults.

Lilly a 14-year-old living with an abusive father, goes in search of people who might have known her mother who had died when Lily was four years old.

It takes place in 1964 during the Civil Rights Act in Southern Carolina. In the small towns, this act is scorned upon and there is racial unrest. Rosaleen the sassy black nanny and the only mother figure in Lily’s life is arrested when she insults the pro-whites.

Lily helps her escape and they land up in the house of August and her sisters who are keepers of bees and makers honey .It is an all black household. Lily the white child lives with them and finds out the truth about her mother and also finds love for which she is hankering after. In fact she finds a whole hive of surrogate mothers in black women living there.

There is a syrupy sweet book and the only thing I appreciated about it is the insights into the ways of the bees, which is explained at the beginning of each chapter.14315999-honey-jar

Fasting, Feasting By Anita Desai.

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Book Review.

It is a story in two parts. The first part takes place in a small town in India and it is about people with typical middle class values, habits and tendencies. It is the story of a harried mother and father (referred to as one entity or mamapapa )with two daughters Uma and Aruna and a son Arun who is born late, when his mother has reached middle age.

Uma is the bumbling eldest daughter who wears thick glasses and occasionally gets fits. She can do nothing right, whether at studies, home keeping or cooking.  The author has painted her very bleakly.  The only joy she has lies in her collection of Christmas cards given to her by her Christian school teachers.Her education is cut short when the brother is born  and she is needed to look after the baby.The few people who try to give some meaning to her life are frowned upon by her parents.

Her parent’s greatest worry is to get her married.  The first  groom who comes to  see her prefers her prettier younger sister. The second groom swindles the dowry money and calls off the engagement on the pretext of wanting to study further. She gets married to the third proposal brought for her, but that too ends in a divorce as it is found later that the groom is already married and had hoodwinked Uma’s family for the dowry. So Uma is at home with her parents more like an unpaid servant jumping to serve their every need. She is a typical middle class woman who bears her lot stoically, like Indian cattle, a beast of burden!

Her sister Aruna is beautiful and clever and makes a good match and lives life on her terms.

Arun the darling son is expected to study and win laurels for the family.

The first part deals with the lives of these commonplace characters.

There are a few other characters in the novel, like the religious aunt and the nephew who is considered a wastrel. Then there is also the cousin Anamika who is everything that Uma is not, yet has a fate worse than Uma. She gets a scholarship to study in Oxford but her parents get her married as is expected by Indian standards. Her husband’s family ill-treat her for twenty-five years. Finally she dies of burn injuries, self induced or otherwise as is hinted at. The first part of the novel ends with her ashes being immersed in the holy river.

My thoughts on the first part: I did not enjoy reading the first part. For one, we in India have seen, heard, read about and lived with such characters that we cannot find anything new in their stories to interest us. It is almost as if the novelist has heaped every form of abuse that an Indian woman can possibly go through, except maybe rape, on the female characters in the novel. Many middle class Indian woman do lead happy contented lives, you know!

Maybe readers from other countries will be fascinated with the portrayal of Indian woman and think, ‘we are like this only.’

The second part is set in USA. It is chiefly about Arun the pampered son who has issues with socially interacting with people. To top it he is a vegetarian. He has to live with an American family for a month during vacation when the hostels are closed. The second part deals with this period in his life. The typical American family seems normal on the surface but dig deeper, everything is wrong. What the author wants to showcase is that despite the plenty in America and the freedom to live life as they please they are not happy. The mother who takes pleasure in shopping and over stuffing her freezer, the father who is content with beer and barbecue, the son who spends a lot of time jogging and the daughter with Bulimia seem very stereotypical.

The author tries to expose two opposites,  pressurized Indian women (fasting) and American women who have much freedom(feasting) who in the final analysis are prisoners of their systems.

Overall, the style of the novel is too simple with hardly any gripping lines or turn of phrase  that reverberate in your mind after you have closed the book. I did not relate to any of the characters in the novel. They were like puppets merely playing a pre assigned role.

If this story were to be taken as a movie it would make a low budget tear jerker from the black and white era.

Would I recommend this novel?

If you have nothing else to read, maybe.4164941-illustration-of-wok-on-the-oven