Book Review: Hangwoman

Hangwoman by K.R. Meera

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m still in Kolkata I think. It’s crazy how this book stays with you long after you’ve finished it and even moved on to the next book. I think the protagonist in this book is as much the city as it is Chetna Grddha Mullick.

(I’m not going to give a synopsis of the story – that’s not how reviews work, IMO.)

First off – 3 cheers to the translator J Devika for a stupendous job of translating this from Malayalam. Not even for a minute did it feel like a translated work (which is a distraction for me, esp if I know the original language – which in this case, I do!). She’s got the nuances and the evocative nature of the prose spot on. For once, I didn’t really mind not reading the original.

Hangwoman is a story of stories. The history that permeates every second of the lives of the Grddha Mullick family finds a way to enter our world too. We lose track of time, of space and sometimes, our self. I loved the way K R Meera has used the hangman and his daughter as master storytellers and spun tale after tale of courage, perseverance, revenge, betrayal and every other human emotion that has changed the course of history. It’s not just the hangwoman we read about, it is also about all those before her who moved through their times so it all culminates in a single moment when she has to decide whether or not to pull the lever.

I was surprised to know that the author was never a resident of Kolkata and she merely visited the city a couple of times for the sake of the book. It does not read like that. The glimpses we get of the Bengali way of life (authentic or not, I wouldn’t know) is hard-hitting and the imagery is unforgettable.

Why then have I given only 4 stars and not 5? Well…because of the textbook K R Meera heroine being a wee bit unbelievable. I had this problem with “Gospel of Yudas” too. the female protagonist in both books are alike – they have extremely strong feelings towards the man and there just seems no basis on why and how the feelings got so powerful. Somehow for me it doesn’t seem real. Maybe it’s an exaggeration – it’s perfectly fine to do that in a work of fiction, but for me personally, the lack of plausibility when juxtaposed against the reality of the supporting narrative somehow makes it seem hollow and well…obviously exaggerated. Might just be me! 🙂 That said, I liked Chetna better than Prema!

Hangwoman will always be a memorable read for me and it’s arguably one of the best works in Indian writing.

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Book Review: The Wildings

The Wildings
The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked up this book solely because of the author – I’ve read her journalistic work and found them engaging and good. And I also had just finished another book by a journalist (Jerry Pinto) and was completely wow’ed by it. But the similarity between ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ and ‘The Wildings’ ends right there. While the former is a prose-lover’s paradise, the latter comes off as young-adult popular fiction and not really a great novel. Nothing wrong with being YA or popular fic – just that it wasn’t what I had in mind when I picked it up.

The idea of a cat world, where humans are just the props in the narrative, is genius. I read the blurb and I instantly bought and started reading it. I liked the attention to detail in terms of the ‘lifestyle’ and habits of all the animals involved in the plot – it was well researched (I can iamgine the author stalking cats to figure out how they lived and it’s not easy!) and well thought-out. The characters were good, too – cats, cheels, birds, people – all of them. But…but.. 🙂

…just a few pages into the book, I realized that I wasn’t enjoying the book as much as I expected to because the words were merely words – there was no vivid imagery, no playful hide and seek between the author and reader, nothing that made me stop and imagine for a second what the words were hinting at. If I wanted to read a tree being described as just a tree, I wouldn’t read fiction; I’d read an encyclopaedia, no? So that was my problem (because I’m a sucker for good prose, to the extent I can put up with a lousy story if the underlying prose is like poetry!) and it was more pronounced in the first half where the story was meandering around to the big set up and the wild, albeit expected, climax.

I also had to contend with Roy’s style of changing PoV midway in a paragraph. One line we’re seeing through Beraal’s eyes and a fullstop later, it’s through Mara. I found that a bit distracting because it doesn’t let us get comfortable enough with a character, to empathize more. It’s not bad writing, it’s just a very jumbled way of going through feelings and somehow it didn’t sit well with me.

After a point, I gave up on the prose and just read for the sake of the story – not my most favorite thing to do, but it was all I could because I didn’t want to give up on the story, per se. And I quite enjoyed the plot, mind you. So, by the time I finished, I guess I was generally ok with the book.

Am I nitpicking? Maybe. Because it’s such a letdown. It could have been so much more because the underlying seed of the story is a great one. But, alas, the curse of lackluster prose.

By the way, if you are a cat person, you should definitely pick this up!

The last few lines may be a spoiler – be warned! 🙂

P.S: For some reason, this book reminded me a lot about Harry Potter :-D. Similar circumstances, similar good-cat, bad-cat, teacher-cat thing going on and the big ‘war’ at the end, with the good-cats almost losing and then, thanks to the ‘hero’, winning. But that’s ok, I guess. Harry Potter is a great story! 🙂

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Book Review: Em and The Big Hoom

Em and The Big Hoom
Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had to create a new shelf on Goodreads for this book – family. Because that is what Em and The Big Hoom is about. Family, in all it’s fragility and pain. But Jerry Pinto has somehow made a painful sad story into one of love and hope, of accepting our human-ness (for want of a better word) and all that it entails, even at the cost of one’s sanity. It doesn’t make you sad, this book. It just leaves this warm fuzzy hangover of a feeling that you knew the Mendeses as intimately as the author himself. There are little parts here and there that pierce straight to your heart and, if you were to mull upon the words, it brings out feelings that you won’t normally have when reading a book.

Em is the mother (she herself says it like a cuss word – Mudh-dha). The Big Hoom is the father. There’s Susan the sister. And our narrator. They live in a 1 bedroom-hall-kitchen flat in Bombay. What makes them different from any other middle class family of their time is Em – she’s ‘mad’. Manic depressive or schizophrenic or delusional – there’s never just one diagnosis. And the narrative is about how the family copes with Em and her repeated attempts at suicide. The story is set more like a set of events and dialogues, attempts by the narrator to learn about Em and her history with The Big Hoom (their rock in that tumultuous ocean of depression that was Em).

I love Em. She’s so endearing, even in her madness or rather because of it. She’s so honest and irreverent, even towards her children (in one of her bouts of depression she says she didn’t really want to have children!) that, at times, you don’t know whom to feel sorry for – Em or her family. We are exposed to all those moments of self-doubt and fear the narrator has, when he has to be there for her but doesn’t really want to even though she’s his mother. That conflict, for me, was the most poignant piece of the story. I have extended family who deal with differently-abled children and I can imagine that pain, that helplessness one feels when being a caregiver 24×7.

This paragraph describes perfectly how it all is, to be one –

“I sympathized with Granny but I also felt a deep vexation. She loved Em and she thought that should be enough. It wasn’t. Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again. At times, when I was young, I wanted to be inside the tower so I could understand what it was like. But I knew, even then, that I did not want to be a permanent resident of the tower. I wanted to visit and even visiting meant nothing because you could always leave. You’re a tourist; she’s a resident.”

The style of the narrative is something I’m encountering for the first time – it’s refreshing and easy on the mind. It’s like this window through which we can see into that little Bombay flat, seeing that family go through a not-very-normal life in a normal way. You can’t help but fall in love with them.

There’s also a bit of humor in the narrative, which is surprising considering the subject. And also a bit of a relief. Like this –

“‘You know when I found your Debonair …’
‘You what?’
‘Oh, I put it back, don’t worry. Behind the tank in the toilet, what a place! I suppose you’d have hidden them under the mattress in your room, if you had a room. Poor beetle, where else are you going to fiddle?’
‘Anyway, I looked at the centrefolds and I thought, some nice girls. But I didn’t want to nuzzle.’
Her conversation had a way of reducing me to exclamations. I think she enjoyed that and worked out exactly how she was going to do it.”

There are many more heart-warming and some chilling conversations too. Probably what kept me hooked because it was all very comforting and disconcerting at the same time!

And hence the hangover. I haven’t picked up my next book yet. I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to lose this fuzzy feeling I have. Maybe I’m in mourning.

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Review: The Midnight Palace

The Midnight Palace
The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was surprised by this book. Not the story or the narrative, but by the fact that I DIDN’T like one of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s books. I’ve read 3 others of his and they were great. This one? Not so much. And I think I know why I didn’t enjoy it all that much – because it is set in India. Calcutta, to be precise. Why is that a problem? Because I know India. I know how the weather is, how the people are, what the food is. I probably know it a wee bit better than the author himself – or so I’d like to think. So when Zafon takes artistic license with names, weather, etc. it put me off.

Spoilers ahead.

At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to the villain – Jawahal. Mysterious, dark and who can set fire to things. We know he’s not human. Great so far. Typical Carlos Ruiz Zafon. And then we are introduced to his childhood friend and our hero’s father – Lahawaj Chandra Chatterghee. Have you seen the problem yet? No? The name Lahawaj is so obviously a mirror image of Jawahal. Our good ol’ Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. Right there, at around 10%, I guessed..rather knew the entire plot, which is actually revealed to us at around 75%. So I have to read almost 3/4th of the book, knowing what the big twist is. Bummer.

Another thing that got me: the story is set in May. In Calcutta. In summer. And we have the hero and his friends sitting around bonfires and fireplaces at night. Seriously? In summer? Unless you’re living IN the Himalayas, I doubt anyone needs a bonfire or a fireplace in India in May.

Silly, right? I know. I hate myself too. But see this is my problem – I’m all for artistic license as long as the plot either acknowledges facts or is so removed from reality that it doesn’t even matter. If George RR Martin tells me in Game on Thrones that they had a 7 year summer, I don’t question it because everything in GoT is made up! Fantasy! But if Zafon is telling me they get so cold, as to to need bonfires, during peak summer in Calcutta – I have a problem there because Calcutta is real. I know it doesn’t rain cats and dogs there everyday during May. It doesn’t. So the plot loses credibility in my eyes.

I know, I know. I’m every author’s worst nightmare, I know. I try to second guess the plot right from page 1. I don’t like it when names of persons or places are misspelled or mispronounced when I know about those names (primary reason why I have trouble enjoying Indian authors – all your Ashwin Sanghi, Amish and ilk). I don’t like it when you expect me to invest myself in your plot if there are factual issues with the props and/or environment. It’s like a constant distraction that I can’t ignore. Nails on a blackboard type distractions. I’m sorry! 😦

I really tried to like this book. But the writing seemed so forced. As if trying to stick to the signature Zafon style of how things happen. I never felt that when I read Shadow in the Wind or The Angel’s Game or The Prince of Mist. I didn’t even feel the words in these books – just the scenes flying past me as if in a movie. I remember feeling cold and despondent when reading Angel’s Game. I still remember the constant rain and the alleys of Barcelona when I read Shadow, years back! Zafon’s books, to me, were that good. This one is such a letdown.

I wonder now – could it be the translation? Even so, there’s no excuse for the plot. It was too obvious. Too open!

Oh well.

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Book Review: Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a good ol’ murder mystery at heart. But while the narrative gets there, we also get a quick primer on domestic violence, on bullying in schools and, here’s the part that freaks out the mother in me, kindergarten politics! 😀

See, I have a son who’ll be starting nursery school in a few months. Every time I think of it, my heart skips a beat, there’s a lurch in my stomach and I need to sit down and take deep breaths. Yep, almost a panic attack. I’m pretty sure I’ll be the bundle of nerves on the first day of school, not the child.

And here comes Liane Moriarty with a book that deals with exactly that – how a bunch of parents navigate this minefield that is kindergarten, with their own personal struggles and having to stay strong for the children while still managing to remain sane. And oh, someone is murdered amidst all this. Oh, calamity! 😉

I liked the book. There are parallel threads going on, sort of a countdown to the D-day (or should I say M-day?) and even though it was a bit off in the beginning, I could get into that after a while. But throughout the read, all I kept thinking was dammit, this can happen to me! I mean, what’s worse – being the mother of the bully or being the mother of the bullied? I don’t know! I’d have a heart attack with either, thank you very much.

I don’t mean to take away the spotlight from the murder, but that’s how the book progressed and maybe that’s what made it a page-turner for me. I doubt if (at the risk of sounding severely cliched or stereotypical or just plain condescending) a non-mother would feel about this book the way I do. There, I said it. Troll me, pretty please. It’s every mother’s worst fear – having the school call you and say your child is hurt or your child has hurt someone else. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Bullying is every mother’s worst nightmare. So yeah, the book freaked me out a little bit and made me that much more nervous about the day my son goes to school.

The domestic violence part – yes, I’ve read it in some other book (I forget which, maybe a Mary Higgins Clark book) and it’s a typical silent killer of most marriages. It’s also one of those things where it’s very easy for a third person to say get out! get out! but in reality isn’t as simple as that. Or maybe it is and that’s why it’s so hard. I’m rambling.

Ok, so read this book if you want an every day family-drama based murder mystery. Say a Desperate Housewives type book. I finished it in less than a day, so it’s not going to hog up your time. A light read, maybe you can fit it in between a Murakami and a Saramago book? [No matter what you read, do not touch Jose Saramago’s Blindness if you want to be a happy person without any suicidal tendencies and/or depression. Just saying.]

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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fairy tale. That’s probably an apt genre for this book. It leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy, a little sadness and ache but with a feeling of hope and of beautiful friendships. It’s hard not to fall in love with the characters and experience their emotions as you read on.

It’s a beautifully written book! It’s at once happy and sad – if that’s even possible! Like a friend said, it will take a while for this one’s hangover to end.

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