A chick-lit with substance | WHAT ALICE FORGOT by Liane Moriarty


4 STARS!!!

Just the book I needed to read, after all the heavy and intense non-fiction I’ve been burying myself in lately 🙂 Sometimes you just need a book that isn’t hard work but has a satisfying experience. I literally googled “unputdownable books” to rescue myself and found it listed on one of my go-to book blogs – ModernMrsDarcy by Anne Bogel, who also runs the addictive “What Should I Read Next” podcast.

I realise this is my third encounter with Liane Moriarty. I’ve read The Husband’s Secret, which was ok, but I really enjoyed watching Big Little Lies, based on her novel of the same name, and now this one. The premise was super interesting and it really kept me glued till the end. And while this isn’t what I would call a mystery or a suspense novel, there is still a sustained element of uncertainty about how the story will unfold, which the author maintains till the very end of the book – and really that is what made it impossible for me to tear myself away for too long!

This is not a short book though, at nearly 500 pages in the paperback edition, but I breezed through it. The writing is fluid and simple and made the reading effortless, which is one quality I really appreciate in a book. It is not taxing and it doesn’t drain you.

But even though the book reads like a chick-lit, it isn’t superficial at all and in the most subtle ways one realises that the story has a lot of depth. Also, parts of the narrative are written as journal entries and letters – which are again a big sell for me. I find those to be one of the best ways of understanding the personality of a character and really connect with them. I especially enjoyed Elizabeth’s snarky but witty and funny journal entries to her therapist. You can feel her pain but you also see her individuality and that was a lot of fun.

I’d recommend it for anyone who’s looking for a a light read, but still wants the story to have substance.

I am so ready for a few more of the kind now 🙂 Happy to get some suggestions!

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Punctuated Much? : EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid


My Man Booker meter is broken I think, because I cannot understand the hype around this book. So much hype that I was over the moon to be gifted a print copy and started reading it immediately.  Everything was fine until the doors arrived…. and then I just wanted to EXIT, in any direction – east, WEST, north, south.

One of the most annoying things about this book was the way it was written, in super long never ending sentences, that went on and on, punctuated with endless commas and ‘ands’, which just did not lend well to easy reading and really put me off, and I don’t think it did justice to the dialogue or helped connect with the characters, and I think the only reason the book is so popular is because of the premise of the story about civil war, displacement and migration, about being forced to give up your life and land to make something of a life somewhere else, which is the reality for so many people in the world today, and all of that mixed up with some magical realism, which I would have been fine with if the writing had been easier to read, and not sounded like an unceasing drone, because there were sentences that were longer than a page at times and its such a distracting thing, and this premise had so much potential to draw out the complexities of the main protagonists, and also of all those stray snippets of lives that appear and disappear, and would have just given the book much more depth and clarity.

Consider this paragraph:

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See what I’m saying?

There was also this typical contradictory way of describing things, like saying this book was not good, but it was also not bad or that it wasn’t lengthy, but it was also not short or that the language was simple, but it was also complicated. Cmon! It makes the writing sound quite trite and dull.
An finally, after trudging through all that to finish the book, I took nothing away from the story and feel frustrated for not being even a little persuaded or inspired by it 😦

So all in all, a thumbs down for this Man Booker shortlisted title.
I seem to be making a record now.

Sadly missing the mark – EROTIC STORIES FOR PUNJABI WIDOWS by Balli Kaur Jaswal


Erotic Stories for Punjabi WidowsErotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An eye catching title and an intriguing blurb, but the expectations they raise are far from met. This book got super lucky getting picked for Reese Witherspoon’s book club in March and for me, there was an extra appeal being punjabi myself n all.

BUT had it not been for the giant push that Witherspoon’s bookclub gives it, with all those Instagram posts and stories (and possibly similar promotions on other social media channels) – I don’t think this book would have gained the popularity it has, simply on the basis of its plot and character development.

The author had a great idea and premise but has trouble sticking to it and really using the opportunity to give the story more depth and direction. The main plot strays into other threads that overtake the central theme, eventually sidelining the widows and their erotic stories, and losing out on a narrative that could have helped the reader connect with these women and every other character on a deeper level.

There was so much potential to unpack how the stories were ruffling feathers in the South Hall community, especially with the Brothers – a sort of local moral police, and becoming a movement of sorts, giving the women from the most conservative backgrounds a voice and a space to freely express themselves.
Ultimately, it came across as one big gossiping group of women trying but failing to keep the scandals in their community under wraps. It also gave me strange notions about the Punjabi community in South Hall, which I fear might become a very flawed reference point for western readers who aren’t familiar with Punjabi / Indian / South Asian cultures and communities.

Though it should have felt like a quick read, there was something about the writing that made my reading really slow and jerky, and I struggled to feel “interested” all the time. I missed the “laugh out loud” moments that everyone is talk about 😦
The only thing that kept me going was the bit of suspense that’s been built into the story.

I really wanted to like this book, but it just didn’t cut it for me.
I thought it was a 3.5, but now I’m feeling closer to a 2.5.

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If you have nothing else to read NEED TO KNOW by Karen Cleveland is passable


Need to KnowNeed to Know by Karen Cleveland

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I heard this book recommended on the Just the Right Book Podcast: Episode 61 and it sounded really interesting and promising. But it falls quite far from that description and review.

I would call this a page turner yes, a good book to read when you’re travelling
OR
if you don’t have anything else at hand
OR
if you’re looking to break your reading slump.

Reminds me of the Twilight series, not great but keeps you hooked till the end.

Entertainer – can totally see this being turned into a film.

I didn’t connect with the protagonist at all, story and characters not memorable, and I really wish Vivian’s character learnt to be less naive because CIA analysts like her would be the nightmare of the American intelligence machinery.

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Just another reading game to entertain myself… The GOODREADS TOP 3 CHALLENGE: FICTION Complete!


One of the things I’d planned to do this year as part of my Reading Framework was to read the GoodReads top 3 voted Best Books of  2017 in the Fiction, Mystery, Sci-Fi and Debut categories. The idea was to diversify my genres (in this case moving towards more Sci-Fi and Debut), get a chance to catch up with the most popular titles from the year and at the same time also do my own ranking to see if the order of the top 3 changed for me and why.

I love GoodReads and the peer reading community that it supports. So the results of the GoodReads Choice Awards are always something I look forward to (even though there is a small glitch in the voting system that needs sorting, which I talked about here).

Though I’d set this challenge for myself quite eagerly, eventually I wasn’t too sure if I was going to be able to finish even one category, what with my wildly untamed reading moods and my thirst for new titles that throw me off-track all the time. But 10 books and two months into 2018, I’ve managed to achieve 25% of my GoodReads Top 3 target and I’m so glad because it made for some really great reading. 

So, the GoodReads top 3 voted books in the Fiction category in 2017 were:

I LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng with 39,077 votes

IBEARTOWN by Fredrik Backman with 38,268 votes

IIELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman with 32,156 votes

As you can see, the top two come really close and the third is behind by quite a margin, so there’s a clear popularity choice coming through. All three books are extremely well written and have very unique plot lines, which is refreshing. I was particularly enamoured by both Beartown and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but something about Little Fires Everywhere fell short for me.

So here’s why I think they should have been ranked as follows:

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1. BEARTOWN by Fredrik Backman

BEARTOWN is a brilliantly translated Swedish novel about an obscure town whose culture and identity is tied to its local ice-hockey team, its only ticket for recognition and validation. When a crucial incident occurs, it threatens to destroy everything the community has worked for – years of sacrifice and dedication, and brings age old loyalties, friendships and ethics into question. The atmospheric characteristics of this remote, freezing town form the backdrop for a really introspective narrative for all the characters in the story.

Though it is not meant to be a mystery, the story is quite unpredictable and has many compelling plot developments that keep you hooked and thinking about what decisions a character is going make. Backman writes with a lot of wisdom, developing extremely complex but relatable personalities for his characters, in a way that you understand the psyche of each one. There are no black or white / good or bad people, everyone has a perspective that they operate from. He captures and expresses some of the most common and obvious though unmindful behaviours that we all practice or observe in our lives but seldom take the time to deeply think about. This is a great piece of contemporary fiction that I would recommend everyone to read.

2. ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

A story about a misfit, a socially awkward woman who finds a new lease to life when she opens up to an unlikely friendship. This book gave me a fuzzy, warm feeling in the nicest most un-cliched way. I am not one for mushy romances, and this is exactly not that kinda book. Even though it deals with themes of loneliness and depression, it does it with so much sensitivity, and a whole lot of wit, humour and heart. This is a book about emotions, relationships and the importance of being accepted for who you are. Its a wonderful,  meaningful, funny, easy to read and uplifting book that must be read sooner than later 🙂

3. LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

I am not sure how I feel about this book anymore, even though I rated it 4/5 on GR. The story revolves around the themes of identity, belonging and rebellion, pitching the perfectly planned lives of native American residents into sharp contrast with the lives of Chinese-American immigrants, who struggle to make ends meet but fiercely protect what is theirs. When I think about it now, I am left with a sense of the story being dark and heavy.

Celeste Ng writes extremely well and I’ve been a fan since I read her first book Everything I Never Told You, which was brilliant, but I think with this one, I wasn’t able to form a connection with any of the characters. I also feel that the context was “too American” or “too suburban American” and somehow as more time has passed since having read it, its turned out to be less and less memorable. That said, it has been voted the most popular fiction in 2017 and has also got many rave reviews in America – but for me, it wasn’t better than the other two.

So those were my thoughts on the Best Fiction from 2017. I now look forward to getting on with the other categories. Until next time, happy reading!

 

A book that is so much more than the sport it is centered on. BEARTOWN by Fredrik Backman


BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What can I say about this book that won’t sound like an understatement.
I would give it 10 stars if that was an option.

I thought I wouldn’t enjoy a book about a sport much, and that too one on ice-hockey, which I know nothing about and have no interest in. But it was so much more than a book about a sport. It took me by surprise. Backman’s writing is beautiful – some of his lines are statements that hit home like a bullet and some are questions that make you pause and think about your own perspectives.
When a story has more than 20 characters and you end up feeling like you completely understand all of those 20 people, and even really start to deeply care about a few, it speaks volumes about the writer’s abilities. I finished the book under an hour ago and I already miss Beartown, I did not want to leave.

This is a ‘human’ story about friendship, loyalty, family, community, ambition, loss and love, about the emotions, and secrets that people carry around in their hearts, about suppressed silences, the things they say and everything they don’t and the extent to which they find themselves go to take a stand when a community’s ethics are tested. I marked endless passages in the book, re-reading them over and over.
There were many wow moments.

Some quotes that gave me pause,

There are damn few things in life that are harder than admitting to yourself that you’re a hypocrite.

Hate can be a a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard, It makes demands. Hate is simple. So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.

There are few words that are harder to explain than “loyalty“. It’s always regarded as a positive characteristic, because a lot of people would say that many of the best things people do for each other occur precisely because of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.

Having gone through such brilliant writing, I am at a loss of being able to properly articulate what made this book so awesome, but the one thing that really made this book shine was the excellent translation by Neil Smith. Its so good that it feels like it was written in English.
This is not one to miss!

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When a crime novel goes kaput on you – Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi


Black Water LiliesBlack Water Lilies by Michel Bussi

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

To shuffle things up a bit, I decided to move from Indian regional novels to a French crime novel in translation, written by the most popular crime writer in France, and what a disappointing venture it was! I don’t remember the last time I gave a book two stars, but there was nothing redeeming about this one.
I finished it anyway, only to see where the story was going, and only to find that the eventual “twist” was almost annoying, instead of what may have been a charmingly wow moment for many – going by the ratings.

Three things that I think completely failed this one for me (FYI – there’s a spoiler in the third point):

1. The translation / writing – I’ve always wondered how a translation is judged good or poorly done, and I think this book is where I understood that. I just couldn’t find the flow in the narration. I don’t know which to blame, there’s no way to tell. So it’s Either that, or the writing.

2. All those French names! – this was probably more frustrating than the writing / narration. The book is set in Giverny, a quaint French town famous for its inhabitant, the impressionist painter Claude Monet – and there are innumerable references to its buildings, roads, streams and gardens. I understand that the author was trying to create an ambience but it was tiring to read all these French names which have to be three word phrases instead of a single word name.
I couldn’t keep them straight and after a point just glossed over the text. In the end, the over referencing didn’t lead anywhere, it wasn’t important to the plot.

3. The plot (**spoiler**) – So when I realised the “twist” in the story, my first reaction was irritation at all the hard work I’d put in to get to that point, to understand where all of it was going. And you know what, nothing happens. Everything is a flashback! Done in a way that it intertwines with the present, and you can’t tell the memories apart from the present day reality.
After 3/4th of the book, or maybe more, the plot is still building up, reaching that breaking point when you know that sweet pleasure will come and all the loose ends will tie up – and poof! One of the most deflating endings is served up, And happily ever after if you please!

I feel like the author made a mid-story decision to change it all up and took a completely new direction. I also think The story could have been pared down, edited. There was just too much atmospheric description and too little plot. All those Monet painting references came to nothing in the end, except now I know who Monet is and where Giverny is :-/

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A Brilliant Retelling of Indian Mythology – The Liberation of Sita by VOLGA


The Liberation of SitaThe Liberation of Sita by Volga

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really really really liked this book.
I had been looking for modern re-tellings of Indian mythology, something beyond Devdutt Pattanaik and Ashwin Sanghi, that either brought a new perspective or told the story more objectively, and what I found was this slim, 100 page marvel, now a treasured addition to my favorites.

Written by a feminist, the book takes a completely fresh critical direction through a feminist point of view to Sita’s story. Picking up at different points in her life, the author creates a narrative between Sita and several other female characters from the Ramayana, treating these key moments in her life with a new perspective to help her understand the implications of the trials she has borne or will bear. There are many many layers in what is such a simply written no-frills narrative.

Written originally in Telugu (titled Vimukta) through the late 70s and 80s, I find this book timeless in the message it ultimately seeks to convey and borrow a few lines from a critical review included at the end of the book, written by one of the translators, to describe what this book really achieves:

Volga’s Vimukta not only belongs to this tradition of feminist re-visionist myth-making but it takes it further. Volga does not use re-visioning merely as a strategy to subvert patriarchal structures embedded in mythical texts but also as a means to forge a vision of life in which liberation is total, autonomous and complete.
…….Women are no longer a means to serve someone else’s ends, nor are they merely the prizes in men’s quests. On the contrary, they are questers seeking their own salvation.

Does liking this book so much mean I am a feminist? I couldn’t say… but I do relate to and support this perspective wholeheartedly. I will definitely be re-reading this book a few times.

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A Review and A Comment on the GoodReads Choice Awards System


Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This year I decided to read the top three voted novels on the 2017 Good Reads Choice Awards to see which one of the 3 was the winner for me, and Into the Water was the first one I read in the Mystery/Thriller category. But a the bigger mystery it seems is how it won the award for the year’s best mystery / thriller at all!
Riding on the popularity wave of her first book, The Girl on the Train, this book was much awaited and obviously promoted as the next amazing thing from Paula Hawkins, and received a lot of attention from readers who liked the first one.

But one look at the average rating (3.53 by over 92,000 reviewers) will show you that its nothing special. I got caught up by the fact that it was voted the best mystery / thriller in 2017 by readers and without checking its reviews decided to listen to the audio book. Approximately 20% in, I was heading to its review page to see what I was missing and why I wasn’t enjoying it at all. When I saw the 3.53 number – I was so put off, but also not surprised.

I decided to finish the book anyway, mostly because it was audio and did not eat into my actual reading time. The story is so dark and gloomy and dreary and pointless – its not fun to read at all! The thrill and pace of an engaging and engrossing mystery is completely missing. So all I would say is, Skip It.

A view on the GoodReads Choice Awards

As most readers know, the GR Awards are based completely on the votes readers give to a book, whether they have read it or not. While this is a great initiative, it leaves room for misrepresentation. This is because even though you haven’t read the shortlisted titles, the system allows you to put in your vote anyway – and you end up voting either because of how popular that book seems to be or because you read something else by the author that you liked. I know this because I’ve done it too!

Now, if you look at the number of votes for the winning title, Into The Water, versus the number of people who have read it – it is just 52%. The close second, Origin by Dan Brown, has a share of 82% votes against the total number that have read it and an average rating of 3.84. This alone shows that the backing of the actual readers on the winning title was super low.

I know that the GoodReads Choice Awards are meant to be a popularity vote – but if they can think of a way to avoid this kind of polarised misrepresentation, then the results (and deserving winners) would be so much more authentic – like everything else this site has managed to keep all these years.

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Reading Plans for 2018 – THE FRAMEWORK!


I think I’m in trouble.

Because every passing day, the intensity of the “pull” from books I’m pining to read escalates. So much so, that the other important things I’m supposed to be doing in a day (like work!!) are now seeming like an annoying distraction. The only motivation to carry on working is so I can make enough of a living to feed this feverish and frenzied but oh so fulfilling habit.

Like I cannot wait for the weekend to get here, because the annual book fair is finally happening and I’ve already got my backpack cleaned up and ready, to stuff with all the loot I don’t deserve but have to have to, oh have to have!

This really is getting out of hand, or…. is it too late to worry now?

But wait, isn’t 2018 supposed to be about celebrating books? Of course it is! Thank you very much for the reminder!

My target for the year is 50 books – and here is how I am going to make the most of it!

The idea is to keep it structured but also allow enough room for those impulsive choices that are inevitably going to be made. I’ve learnt this about myself and I’ve stopped fighting it – because in the end, the discipline really sucks away a lot of the FUN that books and reading are supposed to bring. (The #unreadshelfproject, which I am following via Instagram, is a fun way of bringing in that tiny bit of discipline though!).

So after browsing numerous reading challenges from all over the web, this framework is what I’ve come up with. Finishing 50 books is itself a challenge for me so I am not making the framework too schematic or overly defined. I’m happy with the direction its  taken, and also because it will serve as a reminder to not miss the kind of genres I generally overlook.

I’ve already identified a bunch of titles for these categories, but I think it would be wiser to add those after I’ve actually read them. Lets see where I get in 6 months time.

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 6.02.24 PM

I’m so excited to begin and see how this goes!!

Are you also following a reading strategy this year? I’d love to hear  how you plan to do it.

Happy new year and happy reading!