Dear Mrs. Bird – A.J.Pearce

After reading “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (this years Pulitzer prize winner), i needed something light, funny and entirely optimistic. Prize winning books are deep but too dark and do take a lot of energy to get through sometimes.

“Dear Mrs Bird” though set in war zone London, is the first book i have come across, which in spite of the war setting, have an exuberance that leaves you happy and optimistic.

“…and then I’d managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew.” All books focus on deprivation during the war and heartbreak, but this book is about the life as it went on – despite the war. Miss Emmeline Lake, like any other young adult is keen to become a “lady war correspondent” and with starry eyes contemplates her application for a Junior at a well-known newspaper – dreaming about her travels into war zones and active effort to bringing the enemy down.

Her positive spirit does not let her fail, when she discovers that the job is for a woman’s weekly as a typist and she finds herself sifting through letters received from people who are looking for someone to help them with their entirely mundane, day-to-day problems. She feels a connect with some of them – they are lonely and looking for friends. Mrs Bird is a sort of phenomenon at this weekly magazine and someone to be feared. Her list of “Unacceptables” will leave you wondering about what might then be acceptable at all. Mrs Bird does not believe in responding to the queries of ‘young and frivolous’ and is rather scathing and direct in her responses – pointing out quite categorically when people themselves are to be blamed for their problems.

What starts as a one-off impertinence on part of Emmeline, becomes central to the plot of this book. Emmaline takes it on herself to respond to some of these heartbroken, lonely souls – some via letters and some slipped into the magazine innocuously – after all when was the last time Mrs Bird even read the published version to note this minor anomaly.

This book is a story of friendship – Emmeline with her childhood best friend and her room-mate Bunty, of love – Bunty’s with her finance and Emmeline’s with Charlie; It’s a book of an entirely rebellious young girl who is ambitious, independent and yet kind and empathetic; of survival during war and of keeping up the spirit despite the bombs falling around and dear ones dying either at battle front or at home, due to Luftwaffe’s efforts.

Emmeline’s misconduct is discovered when a girl of seventeen runs away with a Polish soldier at her advise and parents blame Mrs Bird. As in every happy book, she finds a saviour in Mr Collins and her best friend and the book ends on a victorious note.

It’s not a frivolous book, but entirely poignant. ” There was something about planning a wedding that felt like one in the eye for Hitler. He could send over as many Luftwaffe planes as he liked, but he couldn’t stop people being in love and everyone getting excited.” People picking up pieces after losing all that is precious to them and yet making a life with what remains.

The Banker’s Wife – Cristina Alger

Optics, Annabel reminds herself sternly. It’s all optics.”

This one line perfectly lays down the plot. When i think about Bankers, it brings the image of well dressed, culturally aware and snooty men and this book, validates the image to the core.

Annabel, our protagonist, is an art connoisseur and a banker’s wife, who finds herself in Geneva, chasing the money-making dreams of her banker husband from New York. The lonely wife, with no working visa, finds herself devastated with the news of her husband’s plane crash. Then starts the unraveling of the secret life he had been living, while protecting her from the truth.

No readers, the husband does not have string of mistresses or girlfriend on the side (though occasional hints of it may make you wonder), but he is deep into the scam related to siphoning off funds for people into the offshore accounts. Swiss bank accounts have been both a source of fascination and mystery to plebeian like me, so when the book goes deep into the private banking world of Switzerland, how can you not strap yourself on to the seat and go for the ride?

The funds of world criminals, in this book the Syrian Assad family plays a pivotal role, intriguing (if any of its true) and disgusting (how can anyone support a tyrant for a few bobs) in equal measure. It’s a world so far removed from the world in which salaried people like me live, that as a reader i found myself lost into the dreams of millions, billions and trillions through this book.

The plot is fast paced and a lot of it predictable with reader separating out the good guys from the bad ones and waiting for the bad guys to reach justice. A bit ideological in the current world, or maybe its just my cynicism which made me feel a bit sarcastic towards the ending. There is not much blood and gore but press plays a strong and positive role. Part love story, part illegal monetary transactions and part politics keeps up the drama throughout. I may not want to ever date a banker or a politician after reading it, but happy to take the huge diamond ring any day.

Overall, an enjoyable read and a great weekend / beach book to bring along! happy reading.

Love and ruin – Paula McLain

“I was dying to write a character as glittering and sharp as Lady Brett from The Sun Also Rises, but since i couldn’t, I would settle for trying to be her.”

The love i feel for some of the characters across hundreds of books, could not have been articulated better. I asked for recommendation to read on twitter, and came across this rather interesting book. If you know enough about Ernest Hemingway – you would know that he was a great writer but a troubled man.

This book encompasses part of life between Martha Gellhorn and Hemingway. Is it the story of either of them – no, is it Gellhorn’s autobiography – again no. This is neither a dry epitome covering Gellhorn’s career as one of the most renowned war correspondent, nor is it totally about the love affair and her marriage to Hemingway. It is somewhat a mix. Book starts with a struggling Gellhorn, trying to find herself and her purpose in life, conflicted between rebelling and yet trying to please her father.

“It seemed imperative not only to be on the move, and feeling things, but also to be my own person, and to live my own life, and not anyone else’s.”

Her chance encounter with Hemingway and deepening of initially their friendship and then something more is mostly from Gellhorn’s perspective. We find occasional narratives with Hemingway’s voice, but it’s mostly Martha’s story and her interpretation of events around her.

Even though, the story revolves around the one great love of her life, the boldness, the independence and the need to be “her own person” shines bright in Martha’s character. Most of us are as lost as she felt, even in this post war world, but how many of us are brave enough to say it out aloud or acknowledge it, even to ourselves. Need to be in control is usually paramount in human beings and yet, Martha came out stronger for having admitted her lack of purpose. She found a purpose with her love for Ernest and seemed lost again when their initial ‘affair’ ended.

“Walking to my room, i felt loneliness and fear come wishing down from wherever they had been waiting. They draped themselves over me, snug and familiar. Filling my pockets and all the spaces inside and out until i though i might have to lean against the wall to stay upright. In moments, I’d been kicked out of love and was alone again. He was never yours, a voice in my head said. But what did that matter? I had lost him just the same.

This book is essentially about strengths of love and then the ruin, end of love brings about. It’s both the beauty and the beast. It shows various facets of human behaviour. Even though you love someone more than life itself, how losing your own individuality will make you chafe,irrespective. How envy and jealousy, maybe hidden, will show up unbidden, when as peers one person does better than the other. The last but not the least, irrespective of how the world might have advanced, the intrinsic thought that a woman should stay home and be the home maker has not died down yet.

I admire Gellhorn. She struggled her way through to be a first class writer – and her struggle was twice as difficult just by the virtue of her being a female wanting to be right in the middle of the war zone. She tried to stay home to be a wife, but her need to be an individual, won. She gave up some things because her need to make a difference was greater and then some things got taken away from her, because she didn’t fit the society mould of what a woman should be like.

“Listen, i wanted to say, when you fell in love with me you must also have been in love with my wings. Love them now. Love me. Love me, and let me go.”

The sweetness at the bottom of the pie: A Flavia De Luce Mystery – Alan Bradley

I don’t remember how i came across this series, but within a few pages i was hooked and by the end of the first book, i was in love. I love our eleven year old sleuth (by accident), who is irreverent and innocent all at the same time. Alan Bradley is my hero for creating this little genius detective. These books are funny, heart breaking, great plots all rolled into one.

Flavia lives in Buckshaw with her two older sisters – Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daff), her father, fathers general dogsbody (Dogger) and housekeeper cum cook Mrs Mullet. Her mother, Harriet, who everyone seems to love died in an accident when she was one.

“Their combined age totalled thirty years. Thirty years! – against my eleven. It was not only unsporting, it was downright rotten. And it simply screamed out for revenge” perfectly defines the relationship between the three sisters. Flavia, a self taught genius chemistry geek is also perpetually in motion and boundlessly curious about everything – especially dead bodies. “My particular passion was poison” – oh yeah! our detective here is quite blood thirsty by nature and hates being treated like a child (more so than anything else)

Flavia’s first encounter with a dead body was downright funny “I wish i could say i was afraid, but i wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.” She find a dead body in the garden in early hours of the morning and takes umbrage when the police (probably rightfully so) asks her to stay inside and send out some tea.

With her curious mind, Flavia could not stop herself from asking questions, seeking out people and uncovering clues after clues towards the identity of the killer – who is closely related to her father and his school life. She, especially spurs into action when police takes her father into custody as a potential suspect for murder. Her sisters are wailing at home, and Flavia on her own initiative, lands at the prison, manages to negotiate a deal with the Inspector to let her visit her father. For the first time in her life, (as per her) father confides in his youngest daughter about some of the past and associations, which could be related to the event. “There was nothing else to do but to burst into tears. I hated to do it, but it was the only tool that i had with me.”

Between analysing the chemicals in her pristine, state of the art laboratory (inherited from ancestors) and analysing the past, we find Flavia making herself a general nuisance and always a step ahead of the police. In the end she manages to uncover the great mystery, at the cost of being abducted and left tied up in a dark pit.

The writing is rich and arresting, with the expressions and feelings laid bare for the reader to feel what characters are feeling. “I was Flavia. And i loved myself, even if no one else did.” At times, the confusions, the loneliness and need for affection is so raw in this girl, that it is heart breaking and then the next moment, she is on to something so convoluted that it would have you roaring with laughter. “If there is a thing i truly despise, it is being addressed as ‘dearie’. When i write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poisons, and come to ‘Cyanide’, i am going to put under ‘Uses’ the phrase: ‘Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one ‘Dearie’.”

Chemistry has never been my favourite subject, throughout my life and yet i managed to learn a few things from Flavia. I adored reading her cynicism, manipulation and innocence and cheered for her when she came out the winner.

 

 

 

The Word is Murder – Anthony Horowitz

“Mr. Tibbs is the reason everything happened, Tony. If it hadn’t been for him, Mrs Cowper might never have been killed. And nor would her son.”

This line pretty much describes the entire mystery in the book and trust me, even if i tell you that Mr. Tibbs is a cat, you still wouldn’t have a clue until the very end. That my dear fellow readers, is the beauty of Anthony Horowitz’s writing. Just as an aside, if i could, i would steal all his ideas. I love the innovative plots in his books – either he is an editor for a mystery book, thus setting a plot in a plot, or like in this one he is the writer following a detective around trying to weave a book around the real world.

“Diana Cowper had planned her funeral and she was going to need it. She was murdered six hours later that same day.”

With these opening lines, the author had me hooked – I don’t know anyone who would arrange their own funeral details, so this bit intrigued me – a lot – what kind of people do that?!? OCDs, lonely or crazy? Hawthorne, consultant detective on the case reaches out to an author, asking him to write a book about the actual murder investigation. Poor book author, who has only ever written or solved fictional murders, finds himself in the middle of an extremely frustrating and dangerous murder plot.

Abrasive detective and puzzled or rather intrigued author make an incredibly  entertaining duo. Author trying his amateur hand at investigation leaving the detective bristling and annoyed provides the reader with funny banter. There are many leads , as expected, towards the potential murderer along with a rather jealous police office to deal with. Imagine this – our dear author who is also a script writer is in a meeting with Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg (oh! how i would have loved to be proverbial fly on the wall in this fictional meeting) and the sleuth, cool as cucumber walks in, not only to interrupt them, but to remind the author that the funeral is more important than his meeting Hah!

Plot thickens as an old accident comes to light. Diana Cowper had run down two little boys by her car, because she forgot her glasses at the golf club and was let go with a slap on the wrist. Parents lost one boy and were left to deal with the second one, alive but with damaged brain. Talk about motive – this one seemed pretty solid to me, almost until the end. Then there is the daughter in law, with only nice things to say in every conversation, but even a blind person could see her struggling against a controlling mother in law and a selfish husband.

Like any other well written whodunnit, the most innocuous seeming character is the psychopath and mastermind behind the murders – oh yes! Diana Cowper is soon followed by her son into the heavenly abode. The reason is as crazy as you can expect – won’t tell you, so as not to spoil the surprise! There are moments of dark humour in the book, that are simply outstanding. All in all, an excellent book to carry with you to the beach. Kudos Anthony Horowitz and keep them coming.

Chandramani – Kimsuka Narsimhan

In my quest of finding new and international authors, this book was recommended to me by the author herself – who is a finance wizard and a reputed corporate mogul in her own right. Who wouldn’t be intrigued to read a ‘who-dunit’ written by a “not author by profession” – that in itself was mystery enough to pique my interest!

Dont miss the characters introduction at the beginning of the book dear reader – it is not only hilarious, but also sets the tone of what is to come our way. There are two main characters in the book – Ajmer – our detective and Manish – who had the temerity to get murdered. The interesting part is that though, we come across both characters on each page of this not such a long book, we are left to create a character sketch of both via other people’s analysis or thoughts about them. There is no direct “i think….” or “i did…” relating to any of them – that is what makes this book a double mystery to read.

The book is set in India and revolves around the upper echelon of the Indian society. Both the detective and the victim belong to old rich families and seem to have over-protective mothers. Ajmer is approached to resolve the mystery of Manish’s murder by his wife, Purvi, who has been betrayed from her fairy tale ending, since her prince turns out to be a frog in reality. “And it wasn’t long before Manish’s roving eye relived him of the tedium of monogamy.”

Ajmer’s investigation brings out the different facets of Manish’s personality – the good, the bad and the ugly. Servants devoted to the family as well as friends tad bit resentful of the old money, scorn lovers and estranged siblings. All in all, the author has done a wonderful job of keeping the readers on their toes, by just about hinting towards the mystery killer and keeping the chase interesting. While the readers are trying to figure out the mystery, they also start to form an image of who the victim really was but what keeps them intrigued is Ajmer – you will find yourself asking the question time and again “who the hell is he?” or rather “what the hell is he?”

There is rich history related to the fort, where the book is set. Characters are beautifully developed over conversations (polite interrogations) and various idiosyncrasies of Indian society are brought to light. Homosexuality being a taboo is wonderfully handled along with nosy mothers, who always know what is better for you, contemporary professional women who know what they want and double faced morality which still holds a high place in the society.

Well, i cant really tell you who the killer is, now can i! that would take away all the fun. Overall a commendable first effort by the author. Insider information – plan is to develop the character of Ajmer over series of books, so dont be dismayed, if you feel you resolved the murder mystery but didnt get a handle on the detective himself 🙂

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horowitz

“Story in a story” how cool is that, almost like buy a book and you get another one within it for free. It’s an absolutely ingenious writing style.

When I started reading the book, the first lines that caught my attention were ” But I’m not sure it actually matters what we read. Our lives continue along the straight lines that have been set out for us. Fiction merely allows us a glimpse of the alternative. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we enjoy it.” – these lines made me pause. I didn’t entirely agree with the statement that it doesn’t matter what we read – i found myself immediately shaking my head in contradiction. However, i found myself vehemently agreeing to the next few lines – i do find myself living alternate lives vicariously via the characters i read about and the ones that i like. I do find myself thinking sometimes what i would do in a particular situation that i come across in a book.

Anyway, we start the plot with an editor, who is just gathering up her wine and snacks to get cosy and read a book – the 9th book in the series by this author she does not personally like as a person but adores as an author. We find ourselves submerged in the world of Atticus Pund. A renowned detective, credited with multiple solved cases, fighting a fatal disease and yet determined to solve this one last case before he embraces death. The book that we read with our editor is a Sherlock Holmes alike and engaging, though predictable.

Engrossed in the story, the anticlimax arrives when the editor finds the last few pages missing, just before the mystery is about to be unveiled (how perfectly annoying)! The real plot (not sure which one is real by this time), starts with the quest to find the missing pages, only for our reader to realise the author died and the missing pages have truly gone missing. Frustrating!

Our reader turns herself into an amateur detective, using some of the techniques she learnt at the hands of well renowned fictional mystery writers and put them to practice. Her strong sixth sense serves her well and she is proven correct in thinking that the author was murdered and did not commit suicide. The book is creative and involves not just one but two mysteries to solve and its a while before the reader reads the missing pages and finds out the first “whodunnit”

“Emotions which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city fester around the village square, driving people to psychosis and violence. It’s a gift of the whodunnit writer”

Both mysteries are interesting in their own way, set in different time and different circumstances. It’s hard to forget that they are fictional mysteries – good thing is my nails are still intact by the end of the book. Language is average, characters are normal and setting is predictable and murderers are entirely idiotic.

Below lines did resonate with me as a reader,

“You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader.”

I felt the authors interpretation of how avid readers feel towards the books was the best part.

On Love – Alain De Botton

“However happy we may be with our partner, our love for them necessarily hinders us from pursuing alternatives. But why should this constrain us if we love them? Why should we feel this as a loss unless our love for them has already begun to wane? Because in resolving our need to love, we do not always succeed in resolving our need to long.”

This book was recommended to me by a friend and made for quite an interesting read on a rainy afternoon. Being a female, i am quite experienced in the feelings that i feel from the inception of a crush, to the turning of it into an affair, to love and then the anti-climax of a break up and stages involved in getting over it. The accompanied emotions with every change is intrinsic to my being. However, even though i may have questioned how a man thinks during these stages, i have never been able to “figure out”. Well, here it is – written by a man, albeit a more evolved one, the feelings from a male perspective during the trajectory of a love affair – end to end. How can it not be a great and educational read.

Man and woman met on a plane and by the time luggage arrives, man had fallen in love. Since the narrative is from man’s perspective, reader may for the time being assume one-sided anxiety at the beginning of this affair. As we accompany the male into the depth of these affairs, we discover that though the direction of thinking might be different, men and women essentially do think through all their actions and put themselves out at their best at the beginning. There are lies involved and agreement to liking or enjoying things they have no idea about.

Then comes the routine when the novelty of a new intimacy gradually subsides. “what is an experience? something that breaks a polite routine and for a brief period allowed us to witness things with teh heightened sensitivity afforded to us by novelty, danger, or beauty – and its not he basis of shared experiences that intimacy is given an opportunity to grow” When all the questions have been answered, pasts shared and jokes laughed at – what is needed to keep up the interest, the excitement.

This is when the habits which are annoying surface, small tiff’s start surfacing and arguments followed by feeling of discontentment and question about – “is this the one i was looking my whole life?” start arising. What is too much information? what opinions are best kept to self? Is it ok to say i hate the shoes or provide honest opinion when sought? It is especially thought provoking when the author finds himself hiding in a bookstore to avoid an encounter with an ex-girlfriend? “There is something appalling in the idea that a person for whom you would sacrifice anything today might in a few months cause you to cross a road or a bookshop to avoid.”

Wheel of time turns – what went up, has to come down. Now the reader is mentally prepared to see the affair come to an end, as the communication breaks down and the distance starts to creep in. One partner is detached and the other partner is holding on tight to something which is already fleeting. This part of the book is so extremely surreal that it was shocking. Some of the behaviour author described as “love terrorist” are so relatable – they will make the reader examine some of their past affairs and in detail – you will find yourself asking – did i behave like this? and the answer would be resounding ‘yes’ to your horror.

Woman falls in love with the best friend and dumps the man. Now our narrator goes through the denial, hope, anger, melancholy and thoughts of revenge. “It is as if the end of love is already contained in its beginning, the ingredients of love’s collapse eerily foreshadowed by those of its creation” Its heartening to see the man walking towards another woman to fall in love at the end – reassuring, that there is something to move on to.

“Love taught the analytic mind a certain humility, the lesson that however hard it struggled to reach immobile certainties (numbering its conclusions and embedding them in neat series), analysis could never be anything but flawed – and therefore never stray far from the ironic”

Language is absolutely enticing. Drama is a bit exaggerated, especially since from male perspective – but then i am no authority on male sentiments – so who knows!

The Angels Die – Yasmina Khadra

“Dreams are a poor man’s guardian, and its destruction. They take us by the hand, walk us through a thousand promises, then leave us whenever they want. Dreams are clever; dreams understand psychology; they accept our feelings just as we take an inveterate liar at his word, but when we entrust our hearts and minds to them, they give us the slip just when things are going badly, and we find ourselves with a void in our head and a hole in our chest – all we have left is eyes to weep.”

Mohammed Moulessehoul is an Algerian author, who took his wife’s name as his pseudonym to avoid military censorship on his books. His books are set in the very volatile middle east but are stories of love and friendship and relationship amidst the conflict and the chaos – which is what gives them colour and a unique character. He will let the religious and political turmoil active at peripheral level, which his characters are aware of, impacted by but it’s about their lives inspite of. In this book, we encounter the east and west conflict as a way of life in Algeria.

The Angels Die is set in a port city of Oran, in Algeria and is a story of life, of love, of regrets and honour. Turambo, our protagonist is ready for the guillotine and awaiting his execution, when his whole life of 27 years flashes before his eyes. This is his story, story of his poverty-stricken childhood, his disillusions, his desires, success that comes his way and how it goes away soon enough. Turambo, whose real name is Amayas (which we won’t know until the later part of the book) belongs to a devout Muslim family, who is struggling to make ends meet. In his young life, he has seen his war veteran father abandon his family, his mother working to make ends meet, he has learned all sorts of work to bring some money home at the end of the day.

“Luck is like youth. Everyone has his share. Some grab it on the wing, others let it slip through their fingers, and others are still waiting for it when its long past….what did i do with mine?

The story takes a more interesting turn once he reaches the city of Oran with his family. Here Turambo’s luck turns in his favour after the initial struggles. He is discovered and taken over as a boxing protegé by a Gym owner. Hard work and sheer determination paves his way to success and we see him going on to become the North African champion. This is a story of a boy, who inspite of the money and the fame thrown his way, is looking for love. Its his need to be loved that ultimately leads to the change in his circumstances. He has just announced his intention to give up boxing, so that he could marry the woman he loved – because she refused to marry a boxer. Turambo’s decision is not taken well by his sponsor and his manager, who are dependent on him for their earnings. When he discovers that Irene has been murdered, he goes mental and finds himself in police custody accused of a murder he does not remember committing.

In the end we find that luck did a number on him, saving him from execution but rendering him in a vegetable state – thus leading to change in his sentence to life imprisonment. He recovers but is never the same. When he comes out at the age of fifty-two, the world has changed and he finds himself leading a meaningless, aimless life.

“Let no one talk of miracles; what’s a miracle in a hospital room with no light? I’ve drawn a line under my joys and made peace with my sorrows; I’m good and ready. When memory weighs on the present, replacing the daylight being born at our window every morning, it must mean that the clock has decided that our time has come. We learn then to close our eyes on the few reflexes we still have and be alone with ourselves; in other words, with someone who becomes elusive to us as we accustom ourselves to his silences, then to his distances, until the big sleep takes us away from the chaos of all things.”

It’s a very beautiful book. Swallows of Kabul, though still remains my favourite till date.

The Wife Between Us – Greer Hendricks

“Gaze detection, its called – our ability to sense when someone is observing us”

The review said anything i predict about this book while reading will be wrong and it was. Its not about a jealous ex-wife or an obsessed spurned lover either, but there is a high degree of “psychotic” in this book. There is no way to explain or review this book without giving away the plot – so please consider this a warning.

The book begins with a chase of an ex-wife shadowing every move of her husband and his new lover, or so it seems to the reader. Vanessa is finding it hard to move on and Nellie is just at the cusp of a new beginning, looking at the world with rose coloured spectacles. The central figure, though is the husband Richard, pivotal to the entire plot.

Initially Vanessa, now living with her old aunt, will seem like a pathetic figure, with random mysterious comments thrown in to link everything back to what is actually happening. She seems unable to eat or sleep and neither is she able to focus on her job as the memories from her marriage keep assailing her. Nellie on the other hand is ignoring all the signals that her fiancee, Richard is beginning to control her life and her behaviour. She is unable to see her friends distancing themselves, or pay heed to warnings coming from her mother. She is the cinderella in the moment and is unaware that clock is about to strike midnight.

While the reader is busy figuring out what is so unpredictable about this scenario, the author throws in a complex twist of Vanessa and Nellie being the same person. Vanessa to the world and nervous Nellie to her husband. This is the turning point and the protagonist becomes the antagonist. Vanessa, a young and vibrant girl, getting swept off her feet by the charming but much older Richard, embarks on a new life only to discover that things are not what they seem. Her controlling, jealous and psychotic husband manages to alienate her from everything familiar and turn her into a nervous wreck.

“In my marriage, there were three truths, three alternate and sometimes competing realities. There was Richard’s truth. There was my truth. And there was the actual truth, which is always the most elusive to recognize. This could be the case in every relationship, that we think we’ve entered into a union with another person when, in fact, we’ve formed a triangle with one point anchored by a silent but all-seeing judge, the arbiter of reality.”

Richard’s violent anger and constant tracking of movements, leaves no choice for Vanessa but to plot “the demise of her marriage”. She hones in on the newly hired secretary of Richard and passively encourages them to spend time together. It leads into Richard having an affair and thus, leaving Vanessa for Emma. Post separation, though going through the stages of letting go, Vanessa feels extremely guilty, since she never thought that the new innocent girl would get entangled into the web and head for a disaster – a marriage with Richard.

Vanessa is on a quest to save Emma. She provides proofs and ultimately puts herself in the harms way to demonstrate Richard’s penchant for extreme violence. Towards the end, the reader finds the husband in a mental facility being treated for his behaviour, the sister who played an inactive part in the book so far, taking charge of her brother. But what complicates the whole plot is that Emma, who was the innocent was not so simple after all.

Its a great airplane read – as it will keep you hooked and wondering, until everything will start coming together in the end. Just a word of caution, don’t spend too many emotions empathising with the wife or sympathising with the husband.

“You need to remember that even when i’m not there, i’m always with you” – these words may never sound romantic to you again!

Death of a Red Heroine – Qiu Xiaolong

“It is not people that make interpretations, but interpretations that make people.”

In my quest to find new and international writers to enhance my reading experience, i came across this series “An Inspector Chen Investigation” by Qiu Xiaolong – a Chinese author, born and brought up in Shanghai, with first hand experience of the cultural revolution, who is now living in US.

It’s a highly enjoyable series, if you are a culture and history buff. Though a murder mystery (as apparent from “investigation” in the title), what i enjoyed more was an insight into day-to-day life in China during early 90’s. I have travelled to China several times for work and it made me keep thinking if i encountered any of the idiosyncracies mentioned by the author in his book.

Though mystery being quite simple and predictable beyond a point in the book, it’s the discovery process that keeps you hooked on. Inspector Chen is no Sherlock, with no sudden “nirvana” moments, but this poet-policeman will keep you wanting to know more. During the reading journey, you will end up taking a pause to reflect on sociological factors like – being assigned a job by the government – which effectively takes away the choice to decide what you want to do in life, to annual quota of housing, thus assigned by work units to their workers – including police, professors and any number of government officials.

The journey through the chinese authors and poets via the chief inspector character is especially enjoyable and led me to explore more about the books and poets referred to here. It made me purchase the “The Dream of the Red Chamber” – and explore a completely different picture of Chinese societies from centuries ago.

The culinary delights mentioned, the small hawker stalls, the chinese style cooking and eating are truly an insight into how little the world knows about the true chinese cuisine and how when we say we love chinese food, we don’t even know what it truly is.

The mystery revolves around a body found in an out of the way canal, who is then identified as a party member and a Model Worker (assuming modern-day “idol”) As the plot thickens we discover that the Guan (the murdered) was a very private person and people around her had no clue about the personal aspects of her life. To lead a normal life, away from the standards imposed by the party, she has been having an extra marital affair with a HCC (High Cadre Child), who is already married.

Guan’s expecting her lover to leave his wife and marry her, when she discovers the brutal truth and depravity of this man. To avoid such unpleasant encounters, her lover takes pictures of all woman he, thus engages, in compromising positions and blackmail them to keep their mouth shut and not create trouble for him post their breakup.

Murder takes a political turn, since the party is keen to brush the whole affair under the carpet, to avoid unpleasant publicity and public unrest about the abuse of privileges by HCCs. This is where we see Inspector Chen being suspended for a short time, indirectly by assigning him non-police related conferences, entertaining foreign visitors, etc. Our protagonist, though is a tough cookie and keeps up the investigation in a clandestine way to discover proof and most importantly the motive.

Finally the murder trial is hushed and execution swift, with a very calculated media reports to show that the party will take severe steps against the “western bourgeoisie influences” on the current society leading to crime and corruption.

“Whoever fights monsters,” Nietzsche said, “should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

More than a mystery book, it is literature, with beautiful language, making the sounds, smells and experiences surreal for the reader

The President’s Hat – Antoine Laurain

“The important events in our lives are always the result of a sequence of tiny details”

Sometimes, we the mere mortals, need that one symbol, one gesture, a smile, a moment, a chance encounter, a word or a comment to bring out the best in us, to restore our faith in our own capabilities. When everything seems to be falling apart, something like magic holds us together and brings us out a winner. Admit it – how many times have you tried to recreate that magical moment by wearing the same clothes, combination or retracing your footsteps – just to recapture that one moment, which ended up of great significance or turning point in your life.

This book is very special to me. Its a well written, entertaining story of average people, like me, and yet, it has a strength that makes you believe in yourself, that restores your faith in life. You will read this and think – my moment is just round the corner, for me to reach out and touch it.

President Francois Mitterrand loses his hat at a dinner in a brassiere, which is picked up by a disillusioned accountant, treating himself to a decadent, over expensive dinner in a quest to “find himself”. The many characters we will come across in the book, Daniel Mercier is the only one, who’s aware of the real owner of the hat. Daniel appoints the hat as his good luck ambassador and responsible for the change in his attitude at work. Daniel finds himself extra confident and capable in facing off a tyrant boss. He proclaims that it is the Hat which bring about his promotion and hence, change in his life.

The Hat left on a train is next picked up by an executive assistant who is also an aspiring writer in a future-less relationship with a married man. The hat again bestows on her the authority and confidence, required to take charge of her life. She feels like the hat has served its purpose and leaves it in a park for the next person to enjoy. The hat is then picked up by “the nose” or a perfumer, who is facing a block and is in a state of limbo. We see the hat work its magic again, and the perfumer regains his lost ability and perhaps even his life.

The hat then is exchanged at another “cloakroom” and lands up on the head of a semi-autocrat, who is disillusioned with the ancient way of thinking. He finds himself taking charge of his life – shunning the autocrats, standing up for a modern way of thinking and life, endorsing new art and making his own choices in life rather than the ones imposed on him by his ancestors – be it the decor in his house or the paintings hanging on the walls. This time the recipient of the hat does not even realise that he has been wearing someone else’s hat all this while.

Our original thief (so to say) of the Hat is quite determined to recover his lost charm, and finally manages to snatch if off, literally from the head. As a celebration, Daniel takes his family to Venice where he finds himself yet again, within a few metre’s distance from the President. Considering it providence, he decides to return the Hat – and like the author says gains “his wish, his dream, his heart’s desire….He had become the fourth guest at the President’s table.”

“Sometimes life carries you in different directions and you don’t even realise you’ve gone down a fork in the road. the great GPS of destiny has not followed the planned route and there has been no sign to indicate you’ve passed the point of no return. Life’s Bermuda Triangle is both myth and reality”

As i wrote in the beginning, for some reason, this book always restores my faith – in me, in my life, in my situation and i feel just a little bit more optimistic. After all, if you think about it, apart from the first person, none of the Hat owners knew that the hat had belonged to the President – for them, it was just an ordinary hat that had brought good luck and turn of events in their favour. So maybe there is a hat somewhere that has my name written on it, i just have to find it on a daily basis and keep the faith.

I loved the end of this book, with President Mitterrand’s last words “I believe in the power of the spirit and i will never leave you”. Who knows what good spirits might be paving our way all this time unknown to us.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

This revolutionary dystopian book is utterly mind-blowing and thought-provoking. Though as a reader and as a female, i have imagined a world ruled by women, but this book just takes the concept to an entirely different level.

As it is written: “She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.”

All girls, across the world, start developing an unusual power at the age of 14-15. They find themselves able to discharge electric current via their fingers and palm, sometimes enough to defend themselves during dangerous situations and sometimes even enabling them to kill. Then the power grows and they find they are able to invoke this power in older women, which cannot be cured or surgically removed safely until their death and that every girl child in the world is born with this power.

Book is written via four main characters – with different lives and providing different perspectives.

Allie Montgomery, a runaway teenager, who after killing her foster guardian to fend off his sexual advances, finds herself set up in a convent as “Mother Eve” – the messiah arrived to lead the world to a different enlightening. “God is neither woman nor man but both these things. But now She has come to show us a new side to Her face, one we have ignored for too long.”

Roxy – daughter of a drug lord, who uses her powers to kill the man responsible for her mother’s death, with help from her father and brothers. She learns from the “electrical eels” and cultivates her power to become stronger and more in control. She is the soldier that faith leader “Mother Eve” teams up with to realise her dream of setting up a safe harbor, a country for all women, away from men.

Tunde – a Nigerian journalist, first encounters the power at the hands of a young teenage girl, he has a crush on and finds it fascinating and horrifying at the same time. He places himself in dangerous situations and countries to chronicle this change in the world – the new age so to say, the political change and the world gone upside down.

Margot – a mayor of an American town, who as only a woman could in such situation, tries to harness the power by providing training grounds to girl – for them to learn and control this mystical ability as against her competition men, who ruled by their fear would like to destroy all.

At the beginning of the book, all wronged girls are able to take revenge, all young girls are able to defend themselves against boys and men. There is unrest – as would be natural, with parents trying to “cure” their female child, turning them out of the house and even looking at them fearfully. It’s almost ironic to read about “special buses for boys to keep them safe” and formation of “save men’s rights” type of communities.

“Power to hurt is a kind of wealth” illustrates the next phase as the dark side of the power starts to build up. Women start feeling empowered ” Now they will know that they are the ones who should not walk out of their houses alone at night. They are the ones who should be afraid.” Government’s fall and women establish their kingdoms. Females find themselves in positions of power and are no longer afraid of the male dominion, that had always been the ruling force in the “previous world”.

Initially, male half of the population harboured the illusion that this is a temporary state, then they start looking for reasons behind this evolutionary change; post that comes the stage of acceptance – this is the way world is now; and of course followed by ways to defend themselves. I found the commercialisation of this power delightfully satirical – advertisements of rubber shoes & socks, personal batteries, etc. Author has ingeniously provided us with an insight into social media as would be at such times. Men are scared and women are now hungry to use their power.

Ultimately power corrupts – be it man or woman. In the third phase we find that though women have risen using the power from their so-called “weak” state into the more powerful gender, they also lose their ability to empathise with the other gender. Roles are reversed, but cruelty, corruption and atrocities remain the same. Though a new state was set up to promote peace, it leads to slavery and oppression for men, rapes by women, and laws that force men to be enslaved to a woman in every which way “At first we did not speak of our hurt because it was not manly. Now we do not speak it because we are afraid and ashamed and alone without hope, each of us alone. It is hard to know when the first became the second.”

“Men are no longer permitted to drive cars.”

“Men are no longer permitted to own businesses.”

“Men are no longer permitted to vote”

Its ironic, Saudi Arabia (actually Moldova in the book), that led the women revolution once the power was discovered and tried to break free of all these rules imposed on the women, ultimately reverses itself in a worse form, only to have much harsher rules imposed on men.

The book does not end with an apocalypse or an “end of the world” flood, nor does it provide a definitive answer to this dilemma – We who covet power at some point in our lives, why are we unable to stay true to the path of peace. Is this how our DNA, our brains have been programmed. I found this book highly imaginative and an educational read, raising a lot of questions in my mind. Is there a way we could ever find a way to exist peacefully, without brutality and wars – perhaps not – maybe some of those elements make the kindness and humanity shine and maybe some of these darker elements make us appreciate the value of good.

The Rules of Magic – Alice Hoffman

“Anything whole can be broken,” Isabelle told her. “And anything broken can be put back together again.” That is the meaning of Abracadabra. “I create what i speak.”

If you have read Alice Hoffman (as i have – all of them), when you pick up the book you know that next few hours / days (depending on your reading speed) are going to find you in the middle of an absolutely engrossing story, full of magic and witches and curses and some spells that you wish worked in real life (i tried the ones with only chanting – nah it is truly fiction alas!)

The latest book by Alice Hoffman is a prequel to one of my favourite book “Practical Magic” and gives a detailed insight into the lives and dramas of the two doddering aunts, who sounded scary and as if they were always grey and old, and transforms them into young, partially hedonistic, full of life characters.

This family has two girls – Franny and Jet and a boy – Vincent, who are born with magical abilities due to their bloodline, however, mother has decided to keep distance from the “family” and impose rules to postpone the discovery of such talents and affinities for a while – no red shoes, no black clothes, etc etc. Well these magical talents aren’t really meant for getting the house chores done by wave of a wand, but more into being able to read minds (Jet), extreme charisma and ability to see future (Vincent) and ability to talk to / understand birds (Franny).

Children being children obviously want what is forbidden to them. They are curious and chafing against the mother’s rules. When Franny turns seventeen, she gets an invitation from the “family” or “aunt Isabella”. Though parents are not happy, children are grown enough to have an opinion – and they set out to discover the mysteries of their inheritance. The house Magnolia street is mystical and yet restful and the summer passes in a bliss for all three. They learn the history of their bloodline, meet a cousin they have never met before (April) and find out what trials and tribulations are the fate of witches and wizards – loneliness, inability to fit in, being stared at and even feared and not being able to drown.

Jet falls in love with a neighbour boy, who turns out to be from the enemy camp due to an age old curse, which proclaimed that any person from Owens tribe – who falls in love, will cause misfortune and death of the ones they love. Jet discovers the truth behind this curse by losing her beloved and her parents in an accident and Franny decides to give up her love to save him and herself from heartbreak. Aunt Isabella finally provides the words of wisdom near her death by telling Franny to Love more not less to beat the curse.

Post accident. all three – Franny, Jet and Vincent have to grow up within a short span of time, find a way to make money and find a purpose to their lives. Jet lives her entire life devoted to her one and only love – her devotion finally wins over the enemy and reconciliation happens slowly. Franny discovers that it is far easier to fall in love than to give it up and that too to another woman. Hay, her childhood friend, confidant and lover finally gives up the idea of marriage and accepts Franny for whoever she is – curse or no curse.

Vincent, however is complicated. He is a profilgate drowning himself in drugs and alcohol provided for by his musical talents. He discovers true love with another man and hence unlocks the dilemma of not being able to fall in love with numerous women he had affairs with. War happens – well, the normal world is still normal around all the magic and wizardry, and Franny in her determination to save Vincent, gets Hay to provide a forged certificate declaring Vincent medically inept for military service.

Vincent’s interview does not go as smoothly and he finds himself in a mental asylum, from where he is rescued and shipped across the world with only occasional postcards and chocolates to make his presence felt. April, on the other hand has a baby girl fathered by Vincent and gets education and a job to provide for the child.

The ending of the book is what connects it to the sequel (which was released years and years before) where Regina (April’s daughter) dies with her husband, leaving two little girls behind – Sally and Gillian. Sally the elder and practical one calls the two aunt, now old ladies, and tells them that they need to be taken in.

As we know, Practical magic is the tale of the two little girls – Sally and Gillian. In their story, the aunts are at the twilight of their lives and yet a solid presence for them.

Alice Hoffman, in her usual style is able to make this fantasy tale flawlessly believable, so much so that, it becomes easy for a reader to believe that maybe – just a bit maybe, one of the love potions made by aunt Isabella is real and will work, the soap they make in their cauldron can be made and will keep the skin, in reality, as young as it did in the novel. Story line is fast paced and yet characters are evolved, making it possible for a reader to imagine them as they must have been.

Believe it or not, i did try to make my boss vanish the next day – but alas, it didn’t work.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

“I simply fail to see how the act of legally formalizing a human relationship necessitates friends, family and coworkers upgrading the contents of their kitchen for them”

Eleanor Oliphant at the beginning of the book reminded me a lot of “Sheldon Cooper” from The Big Bang Theory. Everyday behaviour which we take for granted was a complete mystery and more often than not, waste of time for her. She is earnest, straight forward and a riot. The dry humour – very British, is an absolute delight to read. Ms Oliphant is proper and very literal and yet intriguing in her own way.

Eleanor Oliphant is a finance executive in a graphic designing company and in love (recently) with a musician in a band – though this musician in question has never met her. Raymond from IT and Eleanor are thrown together when they rescue an old man Sammy (seventy years old) and visit him together at the hospital – and our very dear Eleanor buys him amongst other things, a playboy magazine since she thinks as a man he might enjoy it. Raymond invites her to visit his mother and spontaneously she agrees.

What is most interesting to read is how Eleanor discovers different emotions, which somehow have been neglected in her life so far. During her visit to Raymond’s mother, she discovers the warm feeling a well-kept house, a loving mother and home cooked food gives – the things that most of us take for granted as our right. She starts having lunch with Raymond fairly regularly, though still perturbed about his posture, social habits and dressing.

Once Eleanor realises that the musician she imagines she is in love with and will be the one to fix everything in her life – is only an illusion, a mere crush, she spirals downward quickly and we find her drunk and ready to commit suicide. Raymond rescues her and makes her consult a doctor, who in turn sends Eleanor to a psychiatrist.

Though the reader is introduced to weekly Wednesday night calls from Eleanor’s “mummy” from the onset, the complicated relation they share is revealed gradually via the counseling sessions. The childhood trauma she went through, the abuse – both physical and emotional, suffered at the hand of her own mother, inability to fit into foster care and being shuffled from one home to another, her scare of dark and her nightmare, all leading to her remembering the fire which was deliberately set by her mother to get rid of her children and in which her younger sister died, is uncovered.

This book really is a Eleanor’s journey from a lonely, socially unfit person to finding her strength, making friends, discovering emotions and revealing her own personality – which is not influenced by her mother or her voice is what makes it so unique. Eleanor’s very proper and correct English – none of these modern slangs, keeps the book light, till the very end, but it is a very touching, very deep and in its own way a melancholic book. It is also a validation of the fact that it’s almost impossible to understand someone else’s life and hence judgements are only the weapon of feeble-minded.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. a fearful. incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

By the way, if at any time, i told my hair dresser ” might next week be suitable for you to effect a change of hairstyle” i think i will be looking for a new one 🙂

1Q84 – Murakami

“It is not that the meaning cannot be explained. But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.”

What a beautiful, beautiful book – absolutely mesmerising. This 1300 plus pages tome is yet the best by Murakami. The title intrigued me, when i saw it at the airport and synopsis at the back cover was enough to convince me that this is not any ordinary story. It is so enriching a book, so full of imagination, an allegorical tale of two people, two worlds, two thoughts, so intertwined and yet so simple. Magnificent falls short of trying to describe the two moons that are so central to the storyline. Trust me, i am not exaggerating. It is a long long book and yet i am sad, now that i have reached the end.

A lonely boy and a lonely girl of age ten are in the same school. For two years they are in the same grade as well. Their childhoods are different and yet similar, leading the boy to be kind to the girl and the girl to fall in love with the boy. Not much interaction is required and yet girl once finds an opportunity to hold the boy’s hand and convey her deep intense feelings. By the time boy realises that something important has transpired in that short interaction, girl leaves the school and their paths don’t cross for the next twenty years. This story revolves around how the world, or perhaps i should say worlds, makes it possible for them to find each other after twenty years of longing for that simple innocent touch. Some things are destined to be.

Aomame, a professional trainer is also a proficient murderer, though her killing is limited to abusive men who has brutalised women. While on one such murdering assignments, to avoid a traffic jam, she finds herself climbing down rickety stairs from an expressway and finds herself transported from the year 1984 to 1Q84. 1Q84 is a strange world, where illogical is the only way and the sky has two moons. Reader also encounter the boy, Tengo in this world, ghostwriting a fantasy novella “Air Chrysalis” for a seventeen year old girl Fuka-Eri, as encouraged by the editor Komatsu.

The book or the fantasy storyline of the book is the epicentre, so to say, around which the lives of these handful of characters in this book revolves. This award winning, bestseller book “Air Chrysalis” changes the lives of all around it. Initially believed to be a fiction, Tengo over a period of anxious, troubling and intense times comes to understand, is actually real. “Little People” in reality weave air chrysalis from the threads of the air to create an alter ego of a person. The first person whose alter ego or “Dohta” is created is none other than Fuka-Eri herself.

Fuka-Eri while living with her parents on a sort of a commune, of which her father is the Leader, becomes the perceiver who provides a gateway to these Little People. Once her father becomes the receiver – who hears the voices, Fuka-Eri runs away (or becomes the opposing force for the Little People, hence the destroyer as well) at the age of ten and is brought up by her fathers best friend.

Once the book is published and read by people, the voices stop – as explained by the author – it leads to rise in opposing forces against Little People. At the same time, Aomame, via her patron, student and friend – the dowager, is assigned to kill the Leader, for the atrocities committed against young girls.

The Leader is killed, Aomame is in hiding, Fuka-Eri’s role comes to an end and now the commune or the society is hunting for Aomame. This is when a private investigator finds the connection between Tengo and Aomame and decides to stakeout at Tengo’s apartment, in the hope that Aomame will come to meet him. Its almost as if the whole world is working, moving, changing itself to bring Aomame and Tengo together.

In the end Aomame and Tengo do meet each other and manage to climb out of the 1Q94 to 1994 and are finally together.

It is a fantastical book and the writing is so rich that i actually took an unplanned day off work to finish it without putting it down. The characters are deeply mesmerising – their evolution, their struggles, their needs laid out bare to the reader to analyse and feel. These are not complicated people who find themselves in a different world but simple everyday lives, suddenly living through the struggles of a world of Little People, transported to a world where a man having sex with a conduit could make the woman he loves pregnant and yet, they both are absolutely sure in their hearts and mind that it is their child and not some unrealistic phenomenon.

As the author aptly says “if you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation”

I am looking forward to reading this book again!

 

 

The Muralist – B.A.Shapiro

B.A.Shapiro weaves her magic again with this heart rendering tale of a painter and a muralist. The combination of holocaust, paintings, past and love alternates between the past and the present, in an engaging tale of a young woman who disappears at the age of 22, never to be heard from again, leaving behind bereft friends, bereaving lover and a family she thought did not survive.

Danielle or Dani, the present and Alizee, the past are both searching for an something which seems so elusive and yet so close. Alizee, a struggling painter, works on Murals as part of Roosevelt Franklin’s program to encourage artists, while looking for a way to extract her family from the ever growing turmoil in Europe during 1939. She is young and impetuous and willing to try any forum, which could help her get visas for her dear ones. Since Alizee lost her parents at a young age, she is all the more determined to hold on to the ones that have been part of her life – her brother, and uncles family.

Dani, in the present is equal part fascinated and intrigued by the two paintings, inherited from her family, which were supposedly painted by a talented painter – her grant aunt Alizee, who disappeared during the war years. Dani comes across some painted blocks, which as per her, might have been painted by her aunt, however, her employer Christie’s would rather prefer belong to Rothko – both for fame and money that connection would hence beget.

After some probing and investigation, Dani starts to uncover some details of Alizee’s unconventional life. Alizee’s story which goes in parallel with Dani’s efforts, is in the stage of chaos – where at one hand she is fighting for a chance to prove as an artist – though her painting style is more contemporary vs traditional, more expressive than formative, and on the other getting involved and impacted by the politics of America taking a stand to remain neutral regarding the ever growing unrest in Europe at the heels of Hitler.

Reader comes across many facets of Alizee’s personality – her loyalty to her friends, her ambition to be a great painter, her determination to get visas for her family and her growing unrest leading to a breakdown, which is hidden, mostly, from everyone around her. People she interacts with see a part of her, but no one sees or knows all about Alizee.

Plot comes to head when Dani visits France and on a trip to Drancy comes across some paintings by a baker named Josephine. These paintings and their similarities to Alizee draws Dani to meet Josepine’s husband. Dani is shown determined to unveil the talent that had remained latent over many decades and yet had been crucial as a bridge to the American Modern Art.

Its interesting, at times mesmerising. Not technical in terms of paintings or techniques as  such, but very thought provoking where some of the human emotions are concerned – how we tend to compartmentalise ourselves, unintentionally. The America’s stand to remain neutral during World War did lead to people being turned back, even though they had managed to escape – the hope that was crushed, the lives that were lost and the help that was denied. Historical facts being mostly correct – though the timing of some of them have been changed to make the story plausible, adds to the pleasure of reading.

The Scarred Woman – Jussi Adler-Olsen (Department Q Series)

Department Q Series has come a long way with this new release from Jussi Adler-Olsen. With every new book in the series, the author manages to astonish his readers with an absolutely creative plot and leave them biting their nails while reading the book. As in all the books in the series, its not so much about the suspense, but of the chase and thrill involved.

In this recent book, Rose, an integral part of Department Q (which her colleagues are just now realising) falls apart, after the hypnosis session they underwent as part of the book (The Hanging Girl). Its stunning, how beautifully, author is able to portray a very normal, average sounding person to be going through such deep depression and able to keep everyone around them absolutely ignorant about their condition.

Rose, eldest of five sisters, has been psychologically bullied throughout her childhood by her father and was a spectator to his brutal death at the steel plant. The book tackles her hidden insecurities, her methods of keeping the demons at bay and how deeply it has and is still impacting her. This book has many threads which are brought together spectacularly towards the end.

Apart from Rose, the story revolves around Anneli, a social service worker and spoilt, untalented and rather vain girls, who are dependent on or mis-using the system for state benefits. When Anneli is diagnosed with breast cancer something breaks lose within her and she turns 360 degree from her normal, good girl persona to a dark side that has always been lurking somewhere. She decides to get rid of these “leeches” as she refers to some of the girls availing unemployment benefits. Being a novice and entirely working with the help of internet information, Anneli succeeds in stealing car and hitting one of the girls. While she is happily contemplating the death of the girl, she is rather disconcerted to learn that the girl survived. Learning from her mistakes, as she went along, Anneli manages to kill two more girls in this hit and run manner.

The girls who are being targeted in the meanwhile are leading their own stories – where they are prostituting themselves to select men (calling them sugar daddies) who are in turn keeping the girls in the lavish lifestyle so desired. In order to make “big money” at once, they commit a robbery at a nightclub, which leads to an altercation with another state support girl, who is also a bully, leading to a murder.

One of the girls from this group, also happens to belong to the family, who is involved in our main plot – the grandfather being ex-nazi, grandmother being a force to reckon with, mother a compulsive alcoholic and father disappeared, Denise is suspected by her own mother of killing her grandmother.

Its quite a complex web of stories, related to one another – you will remain glued to this book, since something new will happen at every page turn. Thrown into the mix is also the police politics and finally a certain degree of camaraderie between the departments handling new cases (A) and old cases (Q) since they all seem to be interlinked. We also see Marcus Jacobson (ex chief) coming out of the woodworks and participate as an external consultant – so hopefully we will see this character more active in the next book.

The ending is very positive – where we have hope for Rose pulling through her physical and mental breakdowns, now that the truth behind her father’s death has been uncovered, maybe she will be able to put it all behind and Carl giving Mona a hug in support.

I think i have a book hangover! Sensational is the word.

The Absent One (US) Disgrace (UK) – Jussi Adler-Olsen (Department Q Series)

This is one of the horrifying and yet gripping book i have come across yet. Horrifying because of the portrayal of human depravity and gripping because once i started reading it, i could not put it down.

This is the second book by Jussi Adler-Olsen in the Department Q series, and as before, the title is different for US and UK release. Carl Morck continues to astound us with his sarcasm “That was the thing about holidays. They came to an end.” With his who-cares persona, he keeps dazzling us with his wit and intuition where solving difficult and cold cases are concerned. Still enjoying his goodwill from the solving of the first case, Carl finds himself deeply involved in the next one, which on the face of it is solved – someone has confessed to the crime and is already serving sentence, initially perplexed as to why this case would end up at his desk, he finds himself intrigued and involved as the clues / gaps keep on adding.

A group of six friends discover a dark side of their nature – which is revealed to them at the height of intoxication – both with alcohol and drugs, they find themselves enjoying brutally assaulting random people / strangers, even killing them. This high gave them a unique and heightened sexual pleasure. Five of them from upper elite class of society, finds that cooperative victims can be easily payed off and uncooperative ones can be killed, hence their brutality, violence and depravity continuing to grow along their lives. Turning point is when the five boys of the gang rape the sixth – who is a girl, Kimmie, She finds herself traumatised and humiliated after the violent episode and her solace is in the pregnancy. Her withdrawal and pregnancy incites the others and physical assault leads to her losing her child and mental breakdown.

The hunter and the prey keeps exchanging as the story progresses, with Carl Morck and his Syrian assistant Assad thrown into the mix. The story concludes with Carl finding physical evidence of the murders and himself at the mercy of these monsters. Kimmie arrives on time for her revenge, kills the bad guys and saves the police (who has shown her understanding) and then she commits suicide, as her mission in life is achieved.

Assad and Carl provide the much required humour and a sense of sanity. Manipulation of Carl into letting his boss pursue the case – inspite of orders to the contrary from so called senior management, and argument that the case is actually already solved and is not cold to be re-opened, is so surreal, its almost a training on “how to manipulate your boss” in any scenario.

The details of the assaults, the trauma of the victims, the reasons, the method, the pleasure from these attacks and killings, escalation to the point of madness and ultimate fall from the sky is riveting. Does money allows people to trade their humanity? Its a compelling book with captivating characters and a spellbinding plot.

“They earned millions, but it was the killing that made them feel alive.”

Keeper of Lost Causes (US) Mercy (UK) – Jussi Adler-Olsen (Department Q Series)

A new book by Jussi Adler-Olsen in the Department Q Series has been released as recent as yesterday (19 Sep 2017). Though i am eager to get to the new book, i decided to re-read the series and write the reviews along the way. I do enjoy reading Detective series and this one i simply love.

Carl Morck has been on the police force for twenty five years, out of which ten have been with the homicide division. On his last case, one of his team member was shot and another has been reduced to permanent state of paralysis. Carl holds himself responsible, since he escaped unscathed and he feels he didn’t react quickly enough. He is a broken man who is making life for those around him in the police department miserable and his boss is trying to find a corner for him to hide in.

As a political move, Department Q is formed to resolve cold cases of importance and Marc Jacobson, Carl’s boss, takes this opportunity to hide Carl in the basement as the head of department Q, along with an assistant cum cleaner.

Carl’s first case is the disappearance or potential death / suicide by drowning of Merete Lynggaard, one of the female ministers. Though Carl starts going through the case files and details slowly and reluctantly, mostly pushed by his assistant – who seems to be a mystery in himself, he finds himself with a lot of gaps in the information amassed by the police team that had initially worked on the case. These gaps lead to new information, which is both intriguing and mysterious to Carl, who is now trying to put the pieces together.

The whole plot revolves around an accident that took place when Merete was sixteen and her brother thirteen. While out on a drive with their parents, the playful fighting of the brother and sister caused their father to lose control of the vehicle and led to an accident with another car. It caused the destruction of two families – Merete lost her parents and her brother, Uffe, became permanently mentally handicapped  and entirely dependant on her. The other car lost the father, left mother in a wheel chair, one of the twins that were given birth to at the site of accident survived but with massive burns, and the son of Merete’s age was the only one left unhurt.

The reader, alternatively is kept informed of the fact that the same minister is being kept alive in sub-human conditions and being psychologically tortured. Its now the race to bringing two pieces together and whether the outcome will be death or survival.

In my opinion, this is a very captivating book and keeps you glued – though its not truly a suspense, as you already know that the victim is not dead. Its irreverent and impertinent at times and very dark at others.

“For them she was the woman in the cage, but she was the one who decided how far apart the bard would be.”

“Carl sent a message from his brain to his hands that it was still illegal to strangle people”

I have no idea why the series was published with different names in US and UK – though, it did make me buy duplicate copies (which i did not appreciate), hence, i have listed both names in the title so that i can save other buyers some money. Follow the series with me – it really is a good read.