Of Susu Pals and Unboy boys and a reading Bean

The Bean has decided she’d like to join the rest of her reading family. The Brat did this too. Made me wait months and years to see him read. And then began to read like it was going out of fashion (it is in some parts of the world!).

To me it was unthinkable that my children should not breathe and live the written word the way I do. Except that you can’t really force a love for the written word, can you?

When we were growing up, there were few alternatives to reading if you weren’t a sporty  kid. And while I loved the outdoors, small town UP in those days wasn’t really the place for a lone girl to be wandering around observing nature and watching birds. Still isn’t.

So I read and read and read, everything I got my hands on. But kids these days have options. Distracting options. Options that don’t require them to exert themselves. iPads, twenty cartoon channels, toys and games, malls (!). I try and restrict everything in that list, except the toys and games. And I read to them. And read. And read.

But more than that, I read to myself and they saw. They saw that mama was transported to another world in her book and could be remarkably grumpy when called away from it. Clearly there was something to it. And then the Brat began to read and wild horses couldn’t drag him out of a book until he was good and ready.

The Bean is a sprite… light on her feet, running up vertical surfaces, gracefully skimming across the tops of things, almost as light as cotton candy. I didn’t think she’d ever  take to reading. It required too much effort and why expend that when she had so much else to do?

Her progress has been slow too. And after the experience I had with the Brat’s slow start I was patient. I’d like to think!  But no dice.

And then she fell really ill a few days ago. Ten days during which she had viral fever, a terrible cough, a boil on her cheek, one in her nostril, a rash around her eye and then to top it all, a gastro infection that had her puking for three hours straight, ending up in the hospital emergency. She was so weak that she didn’t even jerk when they gave her the shot, didn’t shed a tear, just looked up at my face with betrayal and exhaustion writ large on her face.

I cradled her all the way home and wondered why she was being made to suffer so. In no small measure because of her constant playing in mud, climbing trees, petting strays and feeding cats, no doubt.

But she’d been so ill, that I had kept her home from school, refused to allow her TV for the strain on her eyes and had nothing to do but to lie next to her and read to her. And Her Highness had finally deigned to begin reading with me. Oh she could spell the words and read them out, she just hadn’t any desire to go through a book.

But she slowly regained health and chose to spend more and more time reading. Reading aloud first, then to herself as she got more comfortable. And then tonight, sweet revenge I made her read the book she’d made me read over and over again, until I was ready to slit my wrists. Richa Jha’s The Susu Pals is the book she loved enough to finally sit down and read to herself.

The Susu Pals

Don’t let the name put you off. I know there are purists who believe that there is a certain form literature must take. I have nothing to say to them. I’m all for reading everything, anything and having no boundaries on what one can read or write about. The Bean, like all girls, is constantly seeking that one best friend to bond with. We’ve moved thrice in the last four years, making that a little difficult. And then one of her closest friends moved to Colombo, ruining our last effort.

This book, about two best friends, Rhea and Dia, who do everything together. Even do susu together. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me because when I was a child I always envied the way men stood at the urinals and continued a conversation they’d started outside the loo, no sign of embarrassment. So while I’m not sure the Bean and any of her friends will end up sharing a toilet seat, I am blown away by the fact that Richa thought of it and used it. The ultimate test of friendship!

I also love the games the girls play together – robbing banks, slaying dragons, raiding tombs, sailing the seas as pirates. None of the stereotypical waiting for princes and making cups of tea. No sirree. Hear that crash? That’s Richa’s book bringing down the second taboo in as many pages.

And then one day Isha enters the picture and their friendship is not the same. Isha and Dia hook up, leaving Rhea out in the cold. Dia now finds her games silly, her ideas boring, and her company is unwanted.

Do Dia and Rhea get back together? Yes, they do. Read the book to figure out how. And there’s a surprise element towards the end that I won’t give away.

The Unboy Boy, seems to have been written for the Brat and I shook my head in surprise when I read it. It’s almost as though Richa visited our home and chose to write a book to that each of my children could relate to.

The Unboy Boy

As the name suggests, Gagan isn’t your average boy. He loves ants, he says good morning to the sun and eschews violence to the extent of not enjoying war stories (here I must digress, the Brat is taking a keen interest in history and wars!). His classmates tease him mercilessly and even his grandfather unkindly calls him a chooha (mouse).

And then one day while at camp, a pet cat disappears and there might just be a ghost around the corner. It’s up to Gagan to save the day now.

The illustrations by Gautam Benegal and Alicia Souza are simply fantastic. I’m sorry to lump the work of individual artists together, but both have a keen eye for detail and the little asides are fantastic.

Please buy. Please gift. And also read Art’s review of the books at Saffron Tree.


Library day

Sigh. Okay, so clearly I am no good at this title business. Moving on. PS: But I’m good at picking books. Would you rather it were the other way around?

The only bush I trust is my own – Periel Aschenbrand

She had me at the title. I giggled, sniggered and knew I had to buy it. I loved it of course. Periel Aschenbrand describes herself as half Israeli, half New York Jew – I’d like to add, and wholly irreverent. In this book Periel, a sometimes waitress, sometimes teacher, sometimes writer and designer, attacks every institution, from patriarchy, to religion, to sweatshop labour – and she does it with style.

If the title of the book wasn’t enough, sample this – ‘… the thing about giving a gift is, among other things, an act of aggression. And it’s an act of aggression because the nature of a gift is that you are forced to accept it and then you owe something.’

Or this one – If you even want to pretend to take yourself seriously as an intellectual, you can’t believe in nonsense like God and heaven.

Or – The Pope knows that God doesn’t exist. That’s the secret of his f**king power.

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice to say, it’s a book for anyone with half a brain, an unwillingness to just accept things because they were told so, and considers themselves a feminist. I’ve read it twice already and it must be age because I keep forgetting the funny lines.

I urge, beg, beseech you – buy this book.

The German Boy – Patricia Wastvedt

I can’t seem to get enough of the Holocaust stories. This one though, is a little after. Elisabeth and Karen are sisters. They are friends with Rachel and both are more than a little enamoured of her artist brother, Michael Ross. Michael however, has eyes only for Elisabeth. But that was in the past. It is now 1947 and Karen’s son is a half German orphan who fought for Hitler. He’s now just a homeless 16 year old who is left in the care of Elisabeth. He enters into their lives seamlessly and then suddenly… it all falls apart.

Karen marries a rich German and goes off to live a fancy life. Elisabeth marries a jowly old man who worships her. Rachel hungers for a child. It took me a while to pick up the threads of the lives of the various characters and figure out how they were connected. Wastvedt’s writing is sheer poetry in some places and for that I’ll forgive her the ease with which she let characters and lives drift apart. I know that is how real life works, that things don’t tie up in neat little bundles. But she left so many pockets of pain, so many conversations unfinished that I took it rather personally. 

I hope someday to grow up to be a writer like her. How does one write prose that sounds like poetry without sounding artificial? It’s magical.

Sorting out Sid – Yashodhara Lal

Disclaimer – Yash is a friend and I’m trying to be as objective as possible.

As I mentioned to Yashodhara, I’d never have picked up a book that seemed like it was about a man.. because well, it wouldn’t have been to my interest. But I did, and I’m so glad I did! Yashodhara’s first book crossed the gender barrier and this one does so with even more aplomb.

Sid is 36 and rather unsorted out. Like many of us. And at times he is absolutely infuriating – just like all of us, I guess. His marriage is an unhappy one even if the reader realises it before he does. His best friend is yet another strong woman and he seems to be propped up by strong women on every front. He is due for a promotion and the vixenish HR lady has her eye on him. He sells toilet cleaners, making for lots of susu -potty jokes.

Yashodhara’s writing is simple and unaffected. And what at first seems like a rather simple tale comes away in layers. His relationships with his wife, his best friends, his parents, his boss – are all in a mess. I started off with very little sympathy for him. But he won me over by the time the book came to an end.

She brings up a lot of very modern day issues through the book-  careers, Peter Pan men who don’t want to grow up, insist on bean bags being part of a more elegant home, don’t want to have kids, mostly cannot think beyond themselves. The love interest Neha is a divorced mother, and I smiled each time I watched those scenes play out.

The OA and I have a lot of friends who don’t have kids and balancing our social life is a nightmare. They love our kids but rarely ever realise how hard it is for us to use an entire weekend for ourselves. The kids have their own social lives and at this stage are dependent on us to ferry them about. And by the time we’re done with two birthday parties in a row and shoe shopping for school and weekend homework, we’re often in no state to party through the night. All we want is to change into our pajamas, get into bed with soup and stare mindlessly at the TV!

Anyhow, I digress (as usual) and getting back to the book, I love how Sid’s self centred nature asserts itself best in scenes where the baby makes her scene. Like a lot of Uncles and Aunts, he’s good for a fun time but no more.

A light read, it gives you something to think about without slapping you in the face with moral science lessons.

A Captain’s Duty – Stephen Talty

An account of the kidnapping of Captain Richard Phillips by Somali pirates in 2009, from the MV Maersk Alabama. I have a lot of friends in the merchant navy and the thought of them being kidnapped does keep me up nights. There’s a part of my brain that can’t accept something as barbaric and primitive as piracy in this day and age. I know costs will go up, but why aren’t shipping companies investing in security on board these ships? Why isn’t the crew trained to use weapons etc? So many questions, and an overarching feeling of disbelief and outrage on behalf of those who risk their lives in this way.

Anyhow, the story told by Capt Phillips tracks his journey from the day he gets on board to the day he is released.

Obviously since its a memoir I don’t hold it to the standards that I hold other books to, but all he does through the entire book is extol his virtues. How great a captain he is, how great a husband, how great a son, it goes on. Seriously – did the editors sleep through this one? There are a few letters to and from his wife, and yet again 

I struggled through the book in spite of taking a dislike to him and not caring whether he gets out of it dead or alive and in spite of the stilted writing, because I wanted to know more about the experience. It was with a sense of relief that I shut the book.

Later on I read up on it and on talking to people I realised that it is common knowledge in shipping circles that he really is arrogant and presumptuous and was largely responsible for getting himself and his crew into a dangerous situation.

I know this isn’t really much of a recommendation for a book, but there you go.

A Long Walk Home – Judith Tebutt 

Yet another kidnapping by Somali pirates – and no, I had no intention of getting a PhD on the subject. Somehow I end up picking up/ receiving as gifts, books on a particular topic, all at the same time.

Judith and her husband David met in Africa many years ago and head off once again to the continent they love. After a week on safari in Masai Mara, their next destination is a picturesque beach resort, Kiwayu, that is only 40 kilometres from Somalia.

Call me chicken, but I wouldn’t plan a holiday anywhere within a 1000 kilometres of Somalia. There’s plenty else to see on this beautiful planet of ours. Reports say, however, that tourism is still flourishing there. Strange.

The alarm bells keep going off in Judith’s head, she says, but I’m not sure how much of that actually happened and how much she imagines/writes about in retrospect.

The island is beautiful but deserted and she expresses her discomfort to her husband, yet again. The cottages have roll up blinds at the doors and windows, nothing that can be locked for security. She wakes up to a shout that night, to see her husband locked in a struggle with a stranger. Two others drag her away at gun point to a boat waiting on the beach.

She ends up in the heart of Somalia, in a little shack. While we’ve all heard of Somali kidnappings (yes, I know how those two words just flow together) I doubt we’ve ever real stopped to imagine the condition of the hostages. The kidnappers are impoverished to begin with, which is why they resort to such lawlessness, so the conditions are far from comfortable.

Judith creates a schedule to maintain her sanity and health, walking up and down in her tiny little room, writing in a little smuggled notebook and trying to remember countries and capitals.  I was amazed by how a lady at Judith’s age kept her wits about her and kept the faith. I read this around the same time I read Captain Phillips’ account and couldn’t help but compare the two. She is so much more humble, real and easy to empathise with. You’re rooting for her right through.

I picked up the book because I was horrified and wanted to read a first hand account of a kidnapping by Somalian pirates. After all they’re constantly in the news for it. From pacing her room every hour, to learning to speak the language of her captors, to playing games on bits of card, Judith shows immense fortitude and presence of mind.

What didn’t work for me, was the style of writing.  Now Judith is not a writer, she is a mental health social worker, so clearly I was expecting too much, but a person can wish, can’t they? To be fair the writing is clean and she makes an effort. I just wish it had been edited to be tighter if not given to a ghost writer.

That said, the book could have been edited down to half its size. The language is simple and the tale is tediously drawn out at times, the degree of detail unnecessary other than to just underline how exhausting, traumatic and violating an experience it was.Again, I feel the editors should have exercised a little more discretion and ruthlessly chopped out chunks. Particularly since the writing is bland and uninspired – she isn’t a writer, after all; she’s a health worker.

The most interesting portions seem to have been left out for valid reasons – the negotiation between her son and the pirates. Did he pay to have her released? Did the government intervene? What happened? You’re left with a lot of questions and only one side of the story. Even so, something I’d recommend that everyone read, simply for the strength of her character through those 192 days of captivity.

Papertowns  - John Green

I don’t usually enjoy YA fiction but John Green has got under my skin. The first thing that hits you when you begin a John Green, is how damn intelligently he writes. And trust me, that is a rarity, these days. He philosophises, he talks to teens in a way they get and he holds my attention too. His books are thoughtful, insightful, witty, unputdownable perfection. And he keeps raising the bar. I forgot to review the last one I read, but I shall make up for that in my next post.

Quentin is a geeky teenager who lives next door to, and loves Margo. Has done so all his life. She’s the cool girl in school, everyone wants to hang out with her, and he’s more than a little surprised when she hops into his room that night asking him to go on a round of vengeance with her, no questions asked. The next day, she’s gone. Her parents have no clue where to begin looking for her and only then does he realise that she’s going to kill herself if no one is able to follow her clues, play her little game, and find her.

It’s a story as old as time. The geek boy loves the cool chick and has to earn that love. But  Green rewrites the hell out of it. For a 35 year old auntyji to stay up half the night reading it, reeled in by the sheer magic of his words.

Please buy and read. And gift to your nieces and nephews and neighbours kids. They won’t need to pick up the classics to see what good writing is.

Tampa – Alissa Nutting

Celeste Price is an schoolteacher who likes to sleep with 14 year old boys. Not 13, not 15. Just 14. There.  It’s best to get that out of the way.  Her profession gives her easy access to young boys and since its rare for women to suspected of child molestation, she gets away with murder, so to speak. She’s married, she’s gorgeous, she’s well loved by her students – she is so not the image of a child molester. A reminder to all of us parents that our sons are as unsafe as our daughters.

Celeste takes her time picking her victims, priming them, using them. The only problem this time, is that her victim’s father wants a piece of her too. I found her character thoroughly dislikable, very selfish and dishonest in every way.

I also realised how double our standards are in such matters. An older woman with a younger boy somehow seems less of a violation to many. But one just needs to read this book to see how easily they can be preyed upon. This book has a lot of sex and is not for the squeamish.

The Naughty Girls’ Book club – Sophie Hart

Estelle is a single mum trying to make a living out of a cafe that isn’t doing too well. She decides to drum up some business by starting a book club. A small group of women gets together and they decide on a theme for the next couple of books – naughty books from different periods. They also end up having one male on the book club who is distinctly uncomfortable with the way things are looking.

Now I’ve tried book clubs and realised they’re just not my thing. It’s usually less about the book and more general chatter. Which is what happens with them too. The basic theme is female bonding, sisterhood. Not really the most earth shaking book on the topic, it is a light read, touching upon each of their personal problems and how the friendship forged in the book club helps them overcome it.

The Black Country – Alex Grecian

And we’re back to my favourite kind of writing – period! It’s 1890 and three people are missing in a small coal mining village, Blackhampton. Two policemen are sent from London  to investigate the crime. The villagers though, close in and want to solve their own problems without outside interference. Very khap panchayat like.

A little girl who falls out of a tree and comes upon an eyeball. The houses that shudder and sink suddenly because of the coal mines running under them. The relentless snowfall. All makes for a rather grim state of affairs.

I’ve always admired Christie and Poirot and Holmes for solving their mysteries without the help of technology, but this one takes the cake. Stranded in the middle of a hostile village and hostile weather, with little to eat and no rest, the detectives persevere. The writing was good, the tension was palpable and the storyline taut. I enjoyed this one, thoroughly.


So y’all know Y of yonearthnot, right? Of course you do-  I wrote about her last book contest here. And if you haven’t, you’ve been missing out on something. Never too late though. She’s just written her second book and here’s her offer, open to all NCR bloggers.


The Sorting Out Sid: Beer and Blogger Contest

I’m really happy to announce the ”Beer & Blogger” contest around my new book ‘Sorting Out Sid” - where 10 Bloggers will get to hang out with me and Karthika VK(Chief Editor and Publisher, at HarperCollins and all around super-cool person) over a mug of beer at The Beer Cafe, New Delhi - on Saturday, 8th February 2014.
We did something similar about a year and a half ago for my first book, and it was fabulous meeting so many of you  over a riotous lunch – we can expect it to be even more riotous this time, given that this is beer-themed – a natural choice because Sid in the story is very fond of his beer! In fact, I think that’s his only steady relationship. Ha ha. (And no, he’s not an alcoholic)
So here are the very simple rules:
1. Write a post (in about 500 words) on your blog about why you would like to readSorting Out Sid. (You will of course get a copy of the book when we meet) (Click here for book trailer, description and excerpt)
ORWrite a post ( in about 500 words) on your blog about any Funny/Embarassing/Awkward/Memorable Incident involving beer!

Extra points for being saucy, witty, funny since that is what the book is like!

2. The Team at HarperCollins and I will shortlist 10 Delhi-NCR based bloggers to join us at the Beer and Blogger meet. You’ll all be treated to a fine afternoon hosted by the nice folks at The Beer Cafe.
Not Delhi-based? Fear not! As before, I have kept 10 copies of the book in reserve for Non-Delhi based bloggers. You can participate in the contest with the same rules above and if your story wins, you will receive in the mail an author-signed copy too. (Note: they will not be shipped abroad, but you can win them for family and friends here!)
Keep the following in mind, please: 
1. The Title of your blogpost must be ‘‘Sorting Out Sid – Beer and Blogger Contest”
2. You must include a link back to this post somewhere in your post for your entry to be valid. (Let your readers find their way here and check out the contest for themselves!)
3. Please ensure you leave a comment to this post with a link to your entry ( Otherwise, how the heck will we find it?)
4. It is optional to include the book cover, book trailer or book description in your blog post. (You’ll find them all right here.)
5. It is also optional to spread the word on social media about your entry to this contest, or to include the link to the book page on Flipkart
6. Both points 4 and 5 above will certainly win you my love and affection, if not necessarily the contest ;)
7. The contest is open until 31st January 2014 only. The decision of the judges will be final. No late entries will be entertained. In fact, if you get your post up before 15th Jan,you may be one of the Early Bird winners to be announced on Jan 20th. So don’t procrastinate – get going. Come on – there’s free beer at stake! Ha ha.
Look forward to getting your entries. All the very best! And remember, there will be 20 people who get free signed copies of the book (10 from Delhi and 10 from other locations!). So go on and let the beery ride begin!
Cheers! *Clinking together of beer mugs*. 

More books – and CROCUS 2013 too!

In case you’ve forgotten it’s the CROCUS time of year again. We have a fabulous theme and a great selection of books for kids as usual.


And to keep you going until then, my thoughts on a few books for grownups.

The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf

Someone somewhere said this would be something like Jodi Piccoult – an author I love to hate. So I picked it up and have to say, she’s nowhere in that league. That said, it’s an interesting read. Seven year old Calli doesn’t speak – she has selective mutism. She stopped speaking at 4 and no amount of therapy or coaxing can bring back her voice. Ben is Calli’s 12 year old brother, devoted, gentle and basically everything one would want in a son. Their mother Antonia is full of life and fun, and their father, Louis is full of alcohol and bullshit. Petra is Calli’s best friend and her voice. She knows just what Calli wants and guides her through home and school. One morning Petra and Calli disappear, seemingly, from their beds. As their families come together to hunt from them, a lot of skeletons tumble out of the closet. Ex-flames, violence and what not.

As a debut book its fairly good, but I wish I’d not begun by reading about the comparison to Piccoult. That always kills a good read. I thought the plot was slightly weak and could have come together better. The author tries to be compassionate to her characters which doesn’t work with me. I’m a hard woman where kids’ welfare is concerned and I don’t have any compassion for people who leave their kids in harm’s way. Or who look away from what might be a potentially dangerous situation for kids to be in. Recently a friend and I got into a huge debate over the toddlers whose parents forgot them in their cars (in the US) until they boiled to a slow death over 9 hours. No compassion here, at all. So anyway, interesting story, but nothing I’d be less of a person for not having read.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee – Rebecca Miller

Now *this* book, I’d have been sorry to have missed. PippaLee is a submissive, perfect wife to her husband of 30 years, who also happens to be 30 years older than her. Herb Lee is a publishing hero, a huge towering man with presence, who is madly in love with his (comparitively) young wife. At close to 50, Pippa is nowhere near retirement, but Herb decides it might be a good idea to sell all his assets and settle Pippa in with a nest egg, should something happen to him. Which is how they end up in a retirement community, where Pippa is by far the youngest. They still have their parties and fun, and then something strange happens. Someone is breaking into their home every night it seems and pigging out. They wake up to half eaten plates of food on the table, scrambled eggs on the stove and what not. A mystery indeed.

I love the twist the story takes and I love the way she brings out the history of Pippa, fleshes out the character and takes Pippa from a flat, colourless trophy wife to a woman with a past. If anything, it teaches you not to judge people by appearances – sometimes they have a lot more depth. Must, must read.

Saving Rafael – Leslie Wilson

I somehow go through phases of a certain type of book without even trying, and this summer was full on Holocaust and slavery fever. Saving Rafael is at the core about belief. The Jakobys are Jenny’s neighbours. And she loves their son Raf. Oh, and the Jakobys are Jews in Nazi-ruled Berlin. Mr Jakoby dies early in the narrative, as does Jenny’s father. And the rest of Raf’s family. The survivors, Jenny and her mother, hide Raf in their home and risk Nazi wrath.

It’s not a new story but no matter how many times you hear it you can’t help but feel your blood boil. On the face of it hiding one boy might seem simple, until you realise the neighbours count how many times you flush, how often you buy groceries and how many lights are on at night. Eventually the Germans suspect them of being sympathetic to Jews and Jenny is taken away to a camp, even though Raf is not caught. Read on to see what happens next.

No matter how much I read about the Holocaust, it’s never enough. I could pick up the next book and be shocked anew. It always shocks me to see the depths that humankind can fall to. I keep thinking of the Godhra riots and the child being ripped out of its mothers womb on the end of a trishul and I feel the bile rise. What makes us so … evil? Vile? Please read. Please read to see how low humankind can fall and how that makes yet others reach within themselves for reserves of courage.

The Child’s Child – Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

Grace and Andrew are siblings who get along uncommonly well. This bit reminded me of my brother and the short but happy time when we shared a flat in Delhi at the beginning of our working lives. Some of my happiest memories are from then. But I digress as usual. So, anyway, their grandmother dies, leaving them her house. They could easily have sold it and split the money, but it didn’t even occur to them, so natural was it to share the place – which was also big enough to be shared. What they hadn’t counted on was one of them bringing in a significant other. When Andrew’s partner James moves in things begin to fall apart. Grace is teaching at University in London and working on a PhD on a topic that no one in her social circle has much contact with – unmarried mothers. Luck drops in her lap an old unpublished manuscript set in between the wars. It remains unpublished because it touched upon two taboo topics in those days – illegitimate children and homosexuality. As Grace begins to delve into it, her life begins to slowly begin to ape the book.

I picked this up because I enjoy the pace of Ruth Rendell mysteries. I was a little disappointed by the writing though. It dragged unmentionably in places and at certain points she entirely lost my interest. I plowed on doggedly because I wanted to see where it went. I have to say in the interest of being honest that it’s a great way to contrast attitudes to the same two issues across decades. A very interesting topic and a plot that I felt fell apart because of the writing. What happened, Ruth?

To my daughter in France – Barbara & Stephanie Keating

I find it amazing that two siblings collaborated over the writing of this book and created such perfection. The power of siblings, again. The novel opens with Richard Kirwan’s death. And in his wake he leaves behind shock and anger when his family realises that he has another daughter, far away in France. They all deal with it in their own ways. His wife by locking herself in her studio, his elder daughter by trying to help sort out this mess by writing to the other daughter and connecting with her, the two younger siblings by taking off to France to find out more about their father’s life there and try and understand him. In all this, the daughter in France is the most devastated by the letter that announces to her she is illegitimate, that the father she loves is not her birth father and that her mother betrayed her father. Set in the early 1970s, the story takes you back to the second world war and Germany’s occupation of France to understand where the roots of the betrayal lay.

My only exposure to the French Resistance, before this was through the TV comedy show ‘Allo Allo and that took the sting out of it. But reading about it here, just made me realise how privileged we are, as a generation, to never have lived through war, through danger, through rationing, fearing for our lives, bombs falling as we walked down the road and watching our country being destroyed. Actually its being destroyed by our own politicians even as you read this, but that isn’t the same. A beautifully written book, telling a heart breaking love story. Telling of courage, faith, of thinking of people other than yourself, I loved this book.

The Ingredients of Love – Nicolas Barreau

Aurelie Bredin wakes up one morning to find she’s been dumped unceremoniously by her boyfriend. It’s Paris, she’s gorgeous, she runs a restaurant, so there will be food in the story. Moping around, she picks up a novel called The Smiles of Women and realises that it is – about her!

Determined to find out how this story came about, Aurelie hounds the publishers to get her in touch with the reclusive British author. The publishers seem equally determined not to give his identity up. For a short while there is a sense of mystery and then the answer comes all too soon. This would have worked a lot better if the author had played his cards closer to his chest and drawn the suspense out a bit longer.

I wish I could sound less blase about this story, but I really had high hopes when I picked it up. If not a sensationally new plot, I expected good writing. A little let down on both fronts. I blame myself for picking up a book with a title of this sort.

Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

I thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book. I picked it up because the blurb reminded me of another much-loved book I wrote about – The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno. Jacob Jankowski is a promising veterinarian student at Cornell when his parents die in a car accident and he finds himself shattered and penniless. He jumps on to a passing freight train and wakes up to find that providence has landed him on a circus train. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love books that take us away to another world. And this one lands you with a ringside view of the big top.

I love stories set in the Depression and Prohibition era. Either I’m morbid or it’s a reminder of how lucky we are to take all this wine and money for granted. ;) Or perhaps its a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit. I love the sound of speakeasies, the smoky bars (our generation would worry about second hand smoke), the beaded dresses, the will to celebrate even when there was no reason to.

Jacob falls in love with Marlena but the bad news is that she is already married. To the most mercurial and powerful man on the show. But it’s not their love story that fascinated me. It was the glimpse into the circus that had me spellbound. The last time I did this was with Mr Galliano and Enid Blyton. This is just a little deeper and darker. The elephant who is too stupid to take instruction, the toothless tiger, the almost human chimp – apparently you’re never too old to hear about them. The supporting characters weave a very interesting backdrop and you want the author to write subsequent novels featuring them.

Our generation really hasn’t known want and every time I read a book on the Depression, I am shocked anew. Here too, there is a struggle between the working class and the bosses. Wages are held back. Hooch isn’t. People take their pleasure where they get it. Violence is a way of life and being physically tossed out of your place of work is par for the course.

This was a fast and fun read and exactly what the doctor prescribed as I sat out ICUs and blood banks. It took me away from my own cares and woes and I enjoyed the flight of fantasy. The end is especially uplifting, particularly for readers like me who have no discerning and hate unhappy or open endings.

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno – Ellen Bryson

I was hoping to link back to my review of this book for the book above and I realised I hadn’t written about it. I’m shocked and disappointed in myself – how did I deny you this gem? But of course its set in the mid-1800s and of course I fell in love with the blurb. And of course its about a way of life and a place we know nothing of, unlike the endlessly tedious novels set around contemporary times and lives and lacklustre events. Bartholomew Fortuno is the thinnest man in the world and – a freak at PT Barnum’s American Museum, Manhattan. It’s amazing to think of a seedy, dirty New York with horse driven carriages. And politically incorrect enough to have people pay money to see the fattest woman and the thinnest man. What is amazing is the pride the performers take in their oddity, their unnatural gifts as they like to call them. Like the book above, this one too has theatrical performances and then the risque ones, the ones ladies can’t and won’t be allowed to watch. Each character is so carefully etched that you almost forget who the stars are.

Into the midst of this comes Barnum’s ticket to fame and fortune – a genuine bearded lady, Iell Adams. I was fascinated by her relationship with Bartholomen, who of course is smitten by her. Does she want him, does she not, why is she messing with his head… It was really very true to life because so often relationships are amorphous and strange and you don’t realise how you’re making a mess of them until it’s too late to redeem yourself.

I recommended this book to everyone for the period, for the writing, for the interesting love story. What I didn’t like was the way the last section dragged. It’s almost as though the author was still thinking her plot through and made you endure the hemming and hawing as she related the tale. I say it should go back to the editing table to make it at truly superlative book.

If it’s not one thing it’s your mother – Julia Sweeney

Comedienne, scriptwriter and author, Julia Sweeney wears many hats, including that of mother. In this one she bares her soul and I grabbed the book the moment I read the title. It was laugh out loud funny.

Julia did what many single Caucasian women of a certain age seem to do – at least as viewed from our corner of the little world. She adopted a baby girl from China. And named her, wait for the cliche – Mulan. Of course the book explains the story behind the name, but it doesn’t change the way I felt about it! Julia talks about her failed relationships, her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, her desire to become a mother, and how she grew into being a mother. In the midst of this process she also acquires a husband.

I’m rather torn over how I feel about this book. It has all the ingredients that usually work for me. Humour, parenting, honesty, memoir. And yet I walked away from it left cold. But I’d like it if you didn’t go by my review. I have a feeling I missed something.

The Almost Moon – Alice Sebold

I really enjoyed Lovely Bones which is why I picked up this book. I read it outside the ICU on the floor. It was a tiring, stressful time and in retrospect I think I should have chosen something lighter and happier. But the OA has a theory that I tend to read dark books just when I shouldn’t. I read a lot on female genital mutilation when I was expecting the Brat and about the plight of women in Afghanistan when I was expecting the Bean.

Helen Knightly is her mother’s sole caregiver and as any caregiver will tell you, it is a draining role. Her mother is severely agoraphobic and her father who loved her for it eventually put a bullet in his head as his way of dealing with it. Helen’s mother was a model and Helen too is a nude model for art students. The book opens with her murdering her mother, and then systematically putting an end to any normalcy in her life, right from her relationship with her daughters, grandchildren, ex husband and best friend.

I tried really hard to relate to her, to understand why she was on the path to self destruction, but I failed utterly. She was just a very dislikeable character. Although the novel only spans about a day in her life, it weaves back and forth into the past, dredging up memories and fitting in pieces to the jigsaw that is her rather insane life. I could have moved past the murder of the mother as the fine line between love and hate. But she just goes on and on, ruining every relationship she has. By the time I got to the end of the book I was in a funk and grateful to put it down.

Going Out – Scarlett Thomas

Luke is a twenty five year old who is allergic to the sun – the same premise as this one I’d reviewed, by Elizabeth Graver, Awake. Once again there is an over-protective mother whose life revolves around keeping her son healthy and alive. I use the term over-protective loosely – if I had a child so sick, I’d be doing the same. But yes, from the child’s perspective it is smothering and flashbacks show him threatening his mother with running out into the sun if she doesn’t give in on some matter. Children are so quick to threaten you with their own mortality.

Luke’s friends are other equally ‘weird’ young people and it reminded me a lot of my own youth. I seem to have mostly sane friends now. I’m still mad though, as the name suggests. Anyhow, Luke spends a lot of his time online and watching TV, his only way to experience the real world. One day someone mails him and offers to cure him of his disease. The catch? He has to go and visit the person.

Plans are made to whisk Luke away without his mother knowing, and a van has to be acquired and sun proofed, and he needs to be put into a sunproof suit that they build on the lines of a space suit. The person driving, is his best friend Julie, who has a fear of accidents, crashes, bacteria and highways.

It’s a coming of age of course and since I’ve come of age myself, I have no idea why I was reading it. I was sort of amused through the greater portion of it and at times disappointed by the cliched way in which they were each made to confront their fears.

A quick interesting read for a boring flight.

Following Fish – Samanth Subramanian

I’m used to disappointing myself but this one is big. I just searched the blog and realised I’ve never written about Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish. A series of nine essays, each one examines one aspect of fish – through culture, medicine, food, sport, society. The famous Hyderabadi fish treatment for asthma ( how my parents begged Tambi to go for it, but he hated fish enough to suffer a lifetime rather than agree – his best friend, also asthmatic, and vegetarian, took it and was miraculously cured), the Catholic fishing communities in Tamil Nadu, fishing boast in Gujarat, he strolls around the coast and takes you along with him.

I fell in love with the book. It was fish, it was history, it was reportage – it was written for me. I love his prose – simple, unaffected, clean. Of course I proceeded to have one of my sapiosexual crushes just as I have on Baradwaj Rangan and Samar Halarnkar. The OA who is used to me doing this, just patted me on the head while other wicked friends promptly tagged him on my Facebook wall mentioning that I was crushing on him. As you can see, I have no need for enemies. Read the book, do. I’ve been gifting it to everyone.

Book Post

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.