The Weight Loss Club – Devapriya Roy
I must begin with a disclaimer. I know Devapriya, only slightly, but I do know her. Now, with that out of the way, I have to begin by saying, I loved the book. I did. It’s always shocking to find that you thoroughly enjoyed reading a book written by a regular person. I don’t know what I expect authors to be – horned and winged creatures I suppose. Perhaps because a good book seems like its been written by a mythical creature.
But enough of the rambling. Anuja Chauhan and Devapriya Roy, are two contemporary writers I enjoy. No hinglish, no sense of the author struggling with the language, no stilted writing, no trying too hard. Just fabulous, flowing prose. And a great story.
The Nancy Housing Cooperative (the result of a clerical error) is just a regular housing society in Calcutta with the usual hovering Bong mother who wants her son to go to IIT, a bullied daughter in law, an overweight academic whose mother is frantically looking for a good match, Treeza who is in depression, Ananda who is taking care of his ailing mother… They’re people we know, they’re people we relate to and yet, you want to know more about them. And then Sandhya arrives and you wonder what she’s doing here. She’s a Brahmacharini and she’s going to turn their lives around.
It’s amazing how Devapriya manages to string it all together and bring it to an end in a crescendo. I got caught up in the fervour and as with all books, was most distraught when it ended. I, for one, am hoping for a sequel. Hint, hint.
Confessionally Yours – Jhoomur Bose Disclaimer again – I know JB too, not too well, but enough to admit that I might be a teeny bit biased. I loved her blog, I love her spirit. And I enjoyed her book.
Polly Sharma, trainee reporter lives a life I don’t envy. Her husband has no interest in her. Her MIL walks all over her. And even her best friend treats her like – well, like crap. She doesn’t get a byline, her boss is a bitch and all in all, Polly isn’t a likeable character, simply because she has no spine.
I find it hard to relate to such doormats because they’re so not me. On the other hand, I was most thrilled to see Jhoomur create a protagonist who was nothing like her. Almost all first time authors write an autobiography and it gets tedious. But this character is nothing like the fiery JB either and in fact the only connection to JB is that Polly is given an assignment to interview an anonymous blogger who writes an extremely juicy blog. Set in a media office, this book made me felt right at home. The four letter words, the crazy hours, the politicking, the tight deadlines, the bitches.
In the end of course Polly comes up trumps but I have to say there were moments I wanted to smack her. All in all a fun, quick read.
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman is a genetics professor who is socially challenged. You’re given to understand that he might have Asperger’s, but its never quite spelled out. Good looking, a flourishing career, one would say these are the perfect attributes in a husband, but Don is pushing 40 and nowhere close to being in a relationship thanks to his social ineptitude and lack of empathy (something he is aware of and interestingly, working on). After a few disastrous experiences that serve as a reminder that he is different, he decides to cut through the initial few dates that are a waste of time and get to the core of the matter.
In true Don style that is logical, focussed and unemotional, by asking all potential dates to fill out an extensive questionnaire. Does she smoke? Is she vegan? Does she waste a lot of time on make up?
Enter Rosie who is hunting for her biological father and needs a geneticist’s help. Disorganised, fun loving and a student cum bartender, she turns Don’s life upside down so that he is no longer cooking by the day of the week and saving 30 seconds on a lecture to use for his fitness routine. They come up with a wild idea to help her find her father and in all this, Don loses track of his own Wife project. And one by one his rules start falling by the wayside as Rosie helps him shake off the shackles of his very organised and entirely boring life.
The Rosie Project is a highly entertaining and interesting book even if you’re not a Big Bang Theory fan. It takes a light and highly sympathetic look at those on the autism spectrum and shows you the view from their side of the hill. He isn’t stylish, he isn’t social, he isn’t funny and he finds it hard to pick up on the unsaid. He has no empathy, yet he elicits yours. This is a particular triumph of the author because its hard to be rooting for someone who has few of the qualities we look for in a hero. And Nerds rule!
Those Pricey Thakur Girls – Anuja Chuahan
The Mint says Anuja Chauhan is “The only Indian writer of popular fiction really worth buying..” Not too far from the truth. I raced through The Zoya Factor in spite of my intense dislike of cricket. I loved the Battle for Bittora because it took me back to my small town roots. And I will even forgive her for all the jibes at Stephanians she makes in Those Pricey Thakur Girls, because well, we can’t all be Stephanians and the bitterness is understandable ;)
I had the pleasure of interviewing her some years ago and she’s as interesting a person as her books indicate. But more about the book. I’m pretty sure that most of you have read the book so I’m really late to this party. Justice Thakur’s daughters, named alphabetically, Anjini, Binodini, Chandralekha, Debjani and Eshwari (a reminder of how long and hard families try for a son!) are a handful. Fortunately the first three are married off and number four, Debjani, who has just begun her career as a newsreader with the national television channel is next up. The youngest, Eshwari, is still in Modern School and has a way to go.
Enter Dylan Singh Shekhawat, part Manglorean Christian, part Rajput and full investigative reporter with the India Post. The chemistry between him and Debjani is enough to blow up the lab, but the path of true love never ran smooth. Set in the mid-eighties, it is two years after the death of the assassination of the PM and the anti-Sikh riots that followed. Dylan is investigating these riots and confesses to much disdain for the state sponsored tripe that Debjani reads off the autocue, as news.
Chauhan weaves the rest of the family in with consummate skill. The free loading Chachaji whose affairs with the cook are driving his pug faced wife crazy. Their top heavy body-building son. Debjani’s elder sister, Anjini, the prettiest of the lot, a terrible flirt and burdened with childlessness. Binodini, married to a ne’er do well who is constantly trying to get her family to fund her husband’s failing enterprises. The vivacious young Eshwari who hates Satish Sridhar who lives next door, is one of her oldest friends and allies and encourages her to date one of the other Modern School studs.
It’s easy to forget the hero and heroine and get sidetracked by the accessories. I love Anuja’s writing. Lets get that out of the way. The Hinglish she throws in as dialogue doesn’t detract from the skill with which the English flows. She’s humorous, she’s compassionate, she understands eccentricities and she creates real people with flaws, who are lovable anyway.
What’s most important is that she’s intelligent. Cricket in one book, politics in the other and media in this one. She understands each of her subjects, researches them thoroughly and only then does she write. These are not trite, candy floss novels that skim over some vague office or the other. These peel away in layers, revealing hidden depths and often touch upon important issues, making a case for them in the most subtle way.
By the end you’re in love with every minor character and wish she’d give them each a book of their own. I hear the little nephew Samar Singh is all grown up and gets his day in the sun with her next book. But I’d really love it if she could give us something on Eshwari who shows much promise. I’m going to buy all the books and get her to autograph them for me. Yes, I can be fangirl too!
Where’d you go, Bernadette? – Maria Semple
I ordered this on my Kindle, which is a mercy because I got so taken up with it that I was reading it on the Kindle app on my phone while the dentist was looking at my teeth, on my Mac when I should have been working… you get the picture.
Semple uses my favourite literary device, letters, blogs, FBI reports and emails. She already had me at that and didn’t really need to do more. But no, she had to go and write a cracker of a book and bring.me to.my.knees. Bernadette Fox is mother to Bee Branch, a super intelligent child who was born with a heart problem, and wife to Elgin Branch, yet another genius who works with Microsoft.
As the story progresses you realise that Bernadette has issues. She is mentally ill and also, in that almost necessary combination, brilliant. She once won awards as an architect for being green at a time when it wasn’t fashionable to be green. Life deals her a few harsh blows and she takes it rather badly, retreating into her home and cutting herself off entirely. She makes fun of Seattle, of Microsoft, of the over-involved school mums… she spares no one. And is generally disliked. It all comes to a head when the school where her daughter studies arranges a fund raiser and when Bee demands that she make good on her promise and take her to Antarctica as her middle school graduation present.
The agoraphobic Bernadette who outsources all her work to a virtual assistant in India called Manjula Kapoor, including calling her doctor for an appointment (because she doesn’t like to deal with people – even her contact with Manjula is only over email) and buying clothes for their trip to Antarctica is outraged when she finds one of the school mums trespassing on her property with a weed removal specialist.
The FBI suddenly gets involved, her husband is having an affair, her house is literally falling into the neighbours and suddenly, she vanishes without a trace. I wish I could tell you more but then I’d have to kill myself for ruining it. Hysterical, intelligent, original, and a light hearted look at artistic temperament, mental illness, infidelity, privilege, parenting and oh so much more!
Semple’s book makes you want to knock at the little door on her head, walk in, and take a look around at what goes on inside and go ‘Hmm.. so this is the kind of brain it takes to write a mind blowing book.’ The story takes an insanely funny yet scary twist and its interesting to see how much an author needs to research things like architecture, software and even Antarctica to write a book. Not like the crap we read these days, just written off the cuff and about banal, mundane lives. Gah.
Read this book, people. I guarantee you’ll want to hug me for the recommendation. If not, meh, you have bad taste!
The House of Velvet and Glass – Katherine Howe
This year, 2014 is the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and the fascination with the sinking of that ode to indulgence, remains. It spun off a number of novels and I can understand the interest because I keep coming back to them. The novel takes a look at the lives of those left behind.
Sybil Allston’s mother Helen, and sister Eulah were on the Titanic when it sank. Leaving her sphinx like father Harlan or Lan Allston, her recalcitrant younger brother Harlan III and herself, to pull together the pieces of their lives after the tragedy, and get on with it. Sybil’s mother frequented the parlour of a medium, and wracked with grief she falls into the habit of visiting the medium too, to see if she can make contact with her dead mother and sister. She was once in love with psychology professor, Benton Jones but he upped and married someone else. A widower now, he’s back in town and seemingly still interested.
Things take a turn when Sybil does manage to make contact with the other world. When Benton finds out, he suspects it to be some manner of fraud and decides to investigate with her. Her brother suddenly shows up and it seems he’s been asked to leave Harvard over misconduct with a lady whose reputation is suspect. It’s just a lot more than Sybil can deal with right now.
And the reader goes back and forth with every alternate chapter, delving into the Senior Harlan Allston’s mysterious past on the ships and the exotic lands he sailed to. All the while leaving you wondering, can you look into the future? Can you make contact with loved ones who have passed on?
I enjoy books like The House of Velvet and Glass precisely because while they seek to answer many questions, they also leave just enough unanswered to keep you wondering. They belong to a time when travel meant true adventure. When you didn’t have a mobile phone to stay in touch, to bring back pictures of the strange and wondrous sights you’d seen, when you struggled to communicate with the locals. When dwellings had their own unique character and ugly rows of high rises didn’t dominate every skyline, be it Beijing or Bombay. From opium dens in Shanghai to the deck of the Titanic, Howe has it all down pat. Each character, no matter how small, seems to have a purpose.
Lan’s past in shipping is the most fascinating part of the book to me. How he grew from brash young sailor to cold, taciturn old gentleman is an interesting tale. Yet, for all that it checks off the correct boxes, it is a slow read. Howe has brought together fascinating ingredients like opium dens, morphine addiction, women’s rights, the Great War, scientists and psychologists – but she’s not been able to build the structure into the towering edifice it had the potential to be. An interesting read nonetheless for its observations on society and class divides.
A Bad Character – Deepti Kapoor
This isn’t an easy book to read. Short staccato sentences. Leaping from one period to another between two paragraphs. And all this with no names. They are just He and She. A boy and a girl who met in Delhi and were drawn to each other. She’s pretty, but we don’t know anything about her prettiness, other than that she believes she is so. He’s ugly – dark, wiry hair, flat nose, ears that stick out – he looks like a servant, she thinks.
And yet she’s drawn to him and within hours, with no explanation they’re together. Her mother is dead and her father abandoned them years ago to move to Singapore. She lives with an Aunty and Uncle. A typical Aunty who wants her to dress up, join her for parties and get married to an NRI. The book is their love story as well as an ode to Delhi. From the cream cheese in Khan market to the qawwals in Nizamuddin, the filthy Yamuna in East Delhi to little cafes where they play Brubeck and Dylan.
This is a story for Delhiites above all as you relate to drug dealers in seedy lanes in Pahargunj, the roadside parathas and whisky, Mori Gate, samosas in boiling cauldrons, Fact and Fiction in Vasant Vihar, It’s dark, it’s noir, it repels you even while it draws you in. Interestingly, it is a story most of us have either lived or witnessed.
One would imagine it wouldn’t interest, precisely for those reasons. But it does, because we’ve all been 20, all loved the bad boy, and many of us have fallen down that abyss of drugs and self destruction or just missed it. Kapoor’s way with words is what holds you, because early into the story he is dead. You stay on because she reels you in and holds on to you, dark as it is. For instance, her description of him is – ‘There’s not a shred of fat on him, it’s all muscle and sinew, coiled eye and glacier bone, as if he’s covered every inch of land, burnt off every strip of fat through breathing.’
Read it if you’ve been there. Read it if you haven’t been there and want to know what it might have been like. Read it for an alternative version of the life you could have lived.
Cry Baby – David Jackson Erin wakes up with a splitting headache and realises in horror that her six month old baby has been kidnapped. Someone has bugged her person and is giving her instructions via an ear piece.
We often say we’d kill for our children. And Erin has to prove that she means it, because that’s what the kidnapper wants. He wants her to kill a couple of people for him and only then will he return her baby. Erin is a regular jane with no idea how one goes about a murder. But she is driven by the need to save her baby’s life and she begins. As the death count goes up, the police get closer.
The story shifts between Erin and a police station, showing both sides across the space of 24 hours. It has an interesting twist to it and a wiser reader might have seen it coming. I was just too worked up about the kidnapped baby to really think ahead. What bothered me is how the crime almost accidentally solved itself. The police showed no initiative, were far behind the criminal and did absolutely no sleuthing. Very disappointing show on the part of the police force. Still a fairly interesting read.
What Alice Forgot – Liane Moriarty Alice wakes up one morning, pregnant and happy. Only to realise she is not pregnant happy, but a mother of three and in the midst of an acrimonious divorce. And in hospital, after a fall in the gym, thanks to which she has lost a decade of her memory. Her daughter and she hate each other, she is one of those super skinny, over achieving SAHMs, and hang on, she seems to be in the middle of an affair, except that she hasn’t the heart to tell the man concerned that she doesn’t even know his name. It’s an old trick, this amnesia one, and it plays out fairly well.
Alice is trying to come to terms with who she really is, revive her relationships and take stock, except that the super sonic life she seems to have been living until 24 hours ago is not allowing her to do that. She has the biggest pie on earth to bake, she has a date, she has so much going on - and all with people she doesn’t even recognise. What Alice Forgot is a wake up call to all those whose lives have turned into the people they swore they wouldn’t. Alice detests the person she is now, is horrified that she and her husband hate each other, her sister and she have no relationship to speak of and her social circle is a bunch of catty women who are constantly taking a swing at each other.
And in all of this, who is this Gina who keeps popping up in conversation followed by a couple of seconds of silence? I liked the pace, I liked the plot, but I disliked a lot of the characters. And what is most annoying is how no one seems to be willing to update her and she flounders around trying to figure out how the last ten years went by. Or maybe that is just a consequence of the unpleasant person she’d become. A quick, light read.
Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty
Yvonne Carmichael is a respected, middle aged scientist with grown up children and a steady, peaceful marriage. One day she bumps into a sexy stranger and the air sizzles with chemistry. Next thing you know, they’re holed up in a corner, doing it. And then he bumps into her again and again and what started out as a one time thing ends up being a prolonged affair, with all the accoutrements including a second phone.
While he knows everything there is to know about her, she knows nothing about him. Is he a spy, a secret agent? Why is he always juggling phones, having rushed conversations, clearly in the middle of some sort of emergency? Neither of them has really planned where this relationship will go, and when she is brutally raped, she turns to him to save her from the stalker who is clearly planning a second round. Getting the attacker to stay away from her is not as easy as they imagined and this is where their personal and professional lives begin to unravel.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book even if I wish it were a little more straightforward and shorter. There’s a lot of back and forth and vagueness, and I think we could have done with less of that. Apple Tree Yard is a reminder that you don’t have to be young to make a mistake. That a middle aged woman can be vain, can feel desire, can commit adultery, can compound her mistakes. As can middle aged men. A reminder that these aren’t the preserves of youth.
The story starts with Yvonne and her lover being in court, on trial. And information comes through in bits and pieces, where the realisation slowly dawns on the reader rather than it being a sudden revelation. In all this her husband stands by her stolidly and perhaps comes across as the most trustworthy character. Or does he? Read it to find it. This is not a book you can read in bits and pieces while traveling. I tried to, and kept losing the plot. Until I stayed back from the beach one morning and focused.
I didn’t regret it at all.