Please note how defiantly I titled this post. I am not going to put in any effort where titles are concerned even though all studies show that it is the title that makes or breaks a piece. Oh well, people will read if they want, or not. Years ago I wrote my first article and the copy editor looked at the headline I’d given it, praised me first and then smiled ruefully. ‘A new broom sweeps clean, a new writer is full of imagination and enthusiasm’ he said. He said he gave me a few weeks at the end of which he fully expected cliches. I lasted a few months at the end of which I was drained, giving about 6 headlines or more a day and restricted by word counts, font sizes and whatnot. I’m giving up on titles to posts too. One hopes you will enjoy the post and forgive me. If you’re wondering where I’ve been, well I’ve spent the last months at my parents’ place, traveling a bit, and reading, reading, reading, as the list below will prove. Oh, I also moved home. Third time in three years. Gurgaon has me quite unsettled!
Wife 22 – Melanie Gideon
I picked up this book quietly, hiding it in my bag because I’d just shopped for books like crazy and the OA was giving me dirty looks. I don’t usually pick up too much contemporary fiction but I loved this one. Loved it because no one love social media the way I do.
Alice is a drama teacher in her 40s. She has a gentle son like mine, and a spitfire daughter, again, like mine. I often worry about the Bean’s teen years and this book gave me the heebie jeebies. Her husband works with an advertising agency and she on some level, ticks off all the stereotypes of being harassed, tired, dowdy and frumpy. And then you give it some thought and realise that it’s only a common stereotype because it is so true. How do you cook fresh meals, hold down a job, and be a good spouse and parent while still making time to look like a million bucks? I certainly don’t think I could manage it!
Anyhow, I digress. Blame yourselves. You make it so easy to chat and think aloud. Anyhow, her marriage is nothing to write home about and one day she finds in her inbox an invite from a research institute, to answer a survey about her marriage. On a whim, she signs up. And from here onwards it’s only a slippery slope. Talking to a stranger about something as intimate as your marriage, is never a good idea. Particularly because its so easy to be open. She is Wife 22, and Researcher 101 is a good listener.
While her marriage unravels, her husband loses his job. Her daughter’s boyfriend has cheated on her. And she is convinced that her 12 year old son is gay. Her friendship with her best friend is on the rocks and a lot of this is thanks to social media. Facebook, text messages, fake accounts and so much else makes up the bulk of this story.
I have to say I found this really easy to relate to, after the violent wars this blog has witnessed, the 2 acquaintances who I lost on FB after disagreements on violence against women and Delhi and so on and so forth.
The writing is lovely, witty and fresh. The story is one that keeps you hooked. And yet again I find myself loving a story that tells itself through letters and messages. It really is a wonderful device. I connected to this story on so many levels that I race through it - and I plan to read it once again to appreciate the vein of wit that runs through it.
My Dear, I wanted to tell you – Louisa Young
I fell back into my comfort zone with this book. Set in the first World War, it is about two lovers who are separated by class and then the war. Riley Purefoy and Nadine Waveney met when they were children and Riley fell through a frozen over lake. He was rescued and dried off at the Waveneys’ warm, bohemian home and there was no looking back. If it weren’t for the war, one wonders what would have become of them. But he joined as a soldier and she as a nurse, the violence and death becoming a great leveler.
They write to each other and swear undying love. Until Riley gets injured and doesn’t want her to be obliged to marry him. So he writes to her, telling her he is in love with another. I don’t ‘get’ noble love. Maybe because love is inherently such a selfish emotion. You love because you love. Period. Anyway, he breaks Nadine’s heart and she moves on to immerse herself in work.
Surrounding them are a host of interesting characters. Riley’s Commanding Officer Peter Locke who is not physically injured by the war but shell shocked. Too horrified by what the war has shown him to go back to his trophy wife Julia. Trophy wife Julia who realises that all she has are her looks, and those she has lost while he was away, thanks to childbirth. Women who might never have otherwise got to drop their stays and raise their hemlines had abandoned their position behind tea trays to drive ambulances and nurse the wounded, never fainting at the sight of lost limbs or gore. There is no appreciation for women like her anymore.
It’s an interesting study of class, of art, and surprise, surprise, of the first experiments with plastic surgery and faces are reconstructed and ears re-attached. I found it a fascinating read for the amount of research and thought that has gone into it. The setting is fantastic, the characters well rounded, there is despair, but always hope, there are smokey bars, hookers, soldiers in trenches, the stench of blood, love, lust and some great writing. Please read.
Fallen Skies – Phillipa Gregory
I love this woman. She writes brilliantly. This one is set in 1920. Smoky jazz bars again, people. What’s not to love? Lily Valance is a singer. Her shop keeper, widow mother has put her all into raising Lily to be more than just a chorus girl. So when Captain Winters, impeccable background, a war hero comes back from the Front, and begins to court Lily, it seems like everything is going well. Young and talented, Lily wants more from life so the Captain has no choice but to bide a wee.
But then Lily’s mother dies, leaving her shattered and Captain Winters is waiting conveniently in the wings to pick up the broken pieces. He rushes her into a marriage none of them should be in and that is when, what seems like perfection, begins to show its cracks. The war hero has his nightmares, Lily has fallen in love with someone else, and the big old house with her paralysed father in law, disapproving mother in law and many, many rules, is like a prison. But Lily, gorgeous Lily fills the home with sunshine, has the help eating out of her hand and even manages not to entirely upset her MIL. And then, she gets pregnant.
I think PG really comes into her own when she does all out fiction. The characters are fantastic, the stories are real and spell binding, and the way she effortlessly captures the mood no matter which era she sets her stories in, admirable. She shows you post WW-I London, the fears and the slow break down of class hierarchy and social mores. And all this just works its way into the story. I wish more writers would put so much effort into their work. She shows you how you can take a simple love story and turn it into a work of art that cannot be dismissed as chick lit. Love. You read.
The Linnet Bird – Linda Holeman
London in the early 1800s. Another period I love. I love that it was dirty, filthy, diseased, hopeless, but still ruled the world! Okay, I hate that they ruled us, I hate what they did to us, but I am fascinated by that period. Linny Gow’s mother was a maid who in the usual way went wrong and ended up pregnant. Then she unhelpfully died. The man who took her in managed to raise Linny until she was 11 before he sold her to the highest bidder. She is a working girl before she knows what it means. It’s all rather dismal and hopeless. One night she is sent to a client who has special needs. The whole deal goes wrong and she’s tossed out for dead. Paradoxically this gives her a second chance at life and she decides never to go back to the step father, even if it means turning tricks on the streets.
One thing leads to another and with a judicious mix of effort and luck, she ends up on a ship to India as a companion to another young hopeful, because India is full of unmarried and desperate bachelors. This is certainly a step up in life, and frankly, all she could have ever dreamed of. In a strange twist of fate she ends up married to the most eligible bachelor there. Not an enviable a match as everyone else might imagine.
This is the first Linda Holeman I’ve read and I enjoyed her writing. You can smell the stench of the London gutters, the hair oil and jasmine flowers in India and feel the ocean roll under you as you toss up your accounts. I loved the bits about cloth draped above dining tables as bugs fell into the food, crumbling chuna (lime) painted walls in India, and the desperate, desperate hunger doctors had in the West for dead bodies to research and experiment on. Reminded me of Whore’s Asylum and a couple more I can’t recall right now.
The characters are cliched at times, but that’s the worst I can come up with. I also struggled with some of the Indian words - either she got the spelling wrong or they were pronounced differently in the good old day. All told, a fast read and an interesting one.
Finding Mr Flood – Ciara Geraghty
One of the best things about traveling abroad is the opportunity to encounter different authors. This is one I found in Bangkok. Yes, it qualifies as chick lit but it was a good read. Dara lives with her sister Angel and her mother, Mrs Flood (that is how she is referred to by one and all). Angel has kidney failure and the three women are on high alert at all times – waiting for the call that a kidney match has been found. Angel is literally, the glue that holds the family together. Mr Flood walked out on them 13 days before Dara was born and well, she doesn’t really expect too much from people. She lives, literally, only to see her elder sister happy. And now, that means finding the father who never knew her, to see if his kidney is a match. She engages a private investigator for this purpose and that, is where it all kicks off.
Protagonist Dara is frankly, rather annoyingly pi and spineless. There are moments I want to slap her silly. The other characters too, seem rather cardboard like at times, with obvious quirks. But on the whole they have interesting and distinctive backgrounds. I found the premise interesting – searching for one of those who gave you life to give you a second lease of life. And the play on the notion – how she really got a life while looking for her sister’s second chance at life. Decent-ish read.
Testimony of Two Men – Taylor Caldwell
I spent most of the childrens’ summer holidays back at my parents place and spent most of my time reading books that I had vivid memories of my grandma reading. I close my eyes and I can see her finely veined hands holding this copy and it makes me heartsick. Set at the turn of the century in Pennsylvania, this is the story of a small town, more than anything else. The rumours, the lies, the affairs, the deception, the hypocrisy – all of it is so much more apparent when you live at such close quarters.
Dr Robert Morgan has moved to Hambledon to take over the practice of the notorious Dr Jonathan Ferrier. Notorious not just for his ridiculous, new fangled ideas such as maintaining hygiene in the operation theatre, modernising and sanitising hospitals and so on – but also for killing his wife. Young Dr Morgan however is torn between believing the whispers about his mentor, and believing what his eyes and his scientific mind show him to be true. Unodubtedly Jonathan Ferrier doesn’t care for the good opinion of his neighbours, but must he go so far out of his way to give offence?
I loved this book. Loved the period (but of course!), loved how it wasn’t just a story about a man who killed his wife, but gave you a fairly good idea of how a few doctors put their reputations at stake for modern medicine and fought to bring in hygienic practices, almost getting run out of town for it. Caldwell forms each character brilliantly if a little rigidly and I love her form of authorial intervention. The book runs at a gentle pace but you don’t realise it because you’re so busy getting to know each person. It’s also a reminder that human nature is essentially nasty. That seems to be the default position most people take. The few who are brusque and honest, genuine, just don’t seem to know how to work the system. Loved this book. Felt such a sense of loss when it ended. Will go back to it in some years again I hope.
Cane River – Lalita Tademy
Based on a true story, this book actually traces the history of author Lalita, replete with copies of old letter, photographs etc. She quits her corporate job in the city to dig into her past and figure out if her great-grandmother Emily’s mother, was a slave or not. The search turned into an obsession and from the material she collected, was born this book. We’ve all read some amount of fiction about slavery and plantations – I wonder how hard it must be for someone who was the Vice President of a Fortune 500 firm in Silicon Valley to deal with what her family went through for her to be where she is. To accept the strength of her ancestors who were slaves, yet fought in their own way, using the means they had at hand, to manipulate their lives into a better place.
It is significant that in a place where everyone is equal, where even men are slaves, a woman’s strength of character comes into play and the women are the ones who actually make something of themselves, even if they do it while using their wiles on men. The story is set on the banks of the Louisiana’s Cane River and runs through the Civil War and the early twentieth century.
As you hear the story of each of those women across four generations, you get a flavour of the times they lived in, how society changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse. What makes it hard to read is the realisation that this is not fiction – this really *was* someone’s life. You hold your breath through the trials and tribulations and the only thing that keeps you going is that it ended well. It ended with a girl from that line of slavery, writing this book. There are days when I allow my silly first world problems to get me down – I think I should pick up my copy and read a chapter on days like that. So should you.
Bong Mom’s Cookbook – Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta
One of the joys of being a blogger is that you know almost every new author. One of my most looked forward to books this year was Sandeepa’s book. She and I have read each other’s blogs for ages and I can’t think of anyone more suited to write on bong food.
The book is written in that chatty style her blog is famous for and personally, I love a cookbook with a bit of history thrown into it. I love that she gives you some informal background on the dish to be prepared – …’it is always made for festivals, in another avatar it can be cooked with only potatoes, can be had with rice also..’ etc. While I am no great cook, I can follow recipes to the T and set up a passable meal, only getting stumped for ideas. Sandeepa’s book solves that problem and makes me a very happy woman. Whether, like me you have a little Bong blood and want to satisfy the craving, or whether you are a foodie who has no Bong blood, just a desire for fabulous food, put your money on this book – you won’t regret it.