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.

The Hypnotist’s Love Story – Liane Moriarty

Have you ever loved someone intensely, passionately, crazily? Has it made you go manic when they broke up with you? Did you or attempt to or thought about stalking them? For some reason, i find this book hugely entertaining, maybe it brings out all the repressed feelings on the surface.

This story is about a Hypnotherapist Ellen, who is on her fifth date with a surveyor Patrick, when he tells her that he has a stalker – that is what piqued my interest, we have heard and read about male stalkers, but seems like women are not too far behind as well. Its funny to note that this Hypnotist for a while is more interested in the stalker and the stalker’s feelings and motives rather than the impact on her boyfriend. Ellen and Patrick fall in love and as Patrick said, the stalker – Saskia, comes as part of the package.

Saskia, the stalker, had a three year relationship with Patrick (while he was grieving over the untimely death of his wife due to cancer) and his baby boy, Jack. Saskia fell in love with Patrick and Jack to the extent of alienating herself from any other life or relationships or friends around her – this please note is quite common phenomenon. When Patrick bounced out of his grief cycle, he broke up with Saskia – which was a month after her only living relative, her mother, had passed away.

So in a span of a month, Saskia loses not only her mother but her family as well. The book is about the escalating craziness of the stalker and hypnotist’s angst to either understand the motive behind this stalking or attempt to live her life around this stalker. When Ellen actually realises the extent of impact on Patrick of this stalking – anxiety, panic, she feels guilty (as a reader, so did i) about not trying to look at things from the perspective of the person being stalked – endless messages, letter, emails, break in’s and tailing in the car, etc.

I enjoyed reading about the Hypnotherapy sessions as well – not sure if i want to try it yet, but it sounded interesting. The ultimate act of stalker is when the happy couple find her in their bedroom and in the whole commotion of shouting and pushing, both the stalker and Jack (8 years old) fall down the stairs. Stalker finally hits rock bottom and closes the door on this chapter of her life and the Hypnotist goes on to realise her love story.

Its a romantic (i would call it comedy) book, as the title suggests, interesting and engaging. It did make me think if internet stalking (as is more prevalent these days) is as harmful as the physical and mental and emotional stalking i came across in this book? The internet stalker though silent is still invading someone’s privacy – right?

Understudy – David Nicholls

“Yes, actors could be vain and pretentious, precious and pompous, sentimental and shallow, affected and lazy and arrogant, but it needn’t be that way, need it?

David Nicholls, the author of “Us”, have outdone himself in this book “Understudy” Its funny and yet sarcastic, light and yet melancholic and very entertaining. Human emotions have been portrayed as they are – very realistic – the empathy, the envy, the dark emotions and desperation of hanging on to the dreams.

Stephen McQueen (with a P and H) is a struggling actor, with 6 roles as dead body under his belt. What i found almost endearing is his “Nearly CV” – the CV that he had wished for and had almost materialised, if some of those situations had been different. He is a socially awkward, average looking and an under-confident actor, who dreams of being a star – not for the fame, “a nod of fame” would do for him, but for the acting itself, which he believes he is really good at.

Stephen is divorced, still in love with his ex-wife and has a huge need to impress his only child – Sophie. He is currently working as an understudy to a famous actor Josh Harper in a play based on Byron, yes, the poet. The emotions of Stephen when Josh is late, or not, as described are so surreal to any person in that position. Though he only wishes Josh to have an accident, making him unavailable for a short duration and giving Stephen his big chance – the emotion doesn’t get dark enough to wish for death.

Josh impulsively, invites Steve over to his place for a party. Steve, after spending the entire day visualising himself to be the centre of attention at the party, is disappointed and humiliated to discover that he was invited as a waiter and not a guest. Steve meets Josh’s wife Nora, who herself is an ex-waitress and almost falls in love with her at the first glance – almost.

In this book, we read about the world as perceived by Stephen, his daily trials and tribulations, his dreams and desires and his loneliness. Stephen, albeit reluctantly, strikes a deal with Josh to not say anything about his chance encounter on Josh’s indiscretion with a fellow female colleague at the play to Nora, in exchange for a chance to actually perform in the play for a couple of days. Stephen – either in his innocence or by the virtue of his need to justify and stay true to Nora, who he considers a friend, chooses to believe that Josh will change and such episode will not reoccur.

When Josh tells Stephen that he is expected to cover for another such encounter – as part of the deal, Stephen sells Josh out to a tabloid. Nora is hurt and takes refuge with Stephen. At the end of the book, we find Stephen fired from the play after his one and only performance for an audience of eleven people, including his ex-wife and daughter, and finally reconciled to the fact that he is done with acting and its time to find something else. Nora decides to accompany Stephen on his mad plan to spend a few days in Paris, though the future is yet to be determined.

I liked this book – it was interesting, fast and funny at times. The characters very relatable and emotions very realistic. Overall, a good read for a Sunday afternoon.

the Rescue Artist – Edward Dolnick

After reading “The Art Forger” by B.A.Shapiro, i realised, i wasn’t done with reading about art and art-crime yet. This book by Edward Dolnick, revolving around a particular theft of “the scream” by Edward Munch in Norway, goes on to discuss and summarise many other art thefts around the world and details about the Art Squad – their success and failures. Its funny at times, sarcastic a lot and really mind-boggling when you read about how art in the recent years has gained importance as an investment and hence, attracted the interest of not only investors but also the criminals.

“If the Russborough House thefts have a moral, it is that the lure of big money is only one of the reasons that thieves steam big-time art. But some of the other reasons – the notoriety, the thrill, the thieves urge to flaunt their contempt for the patrons and collectors of art – would ever come into play if great paintings did not command stunning  prices”

The painters from 1600-1800 era or even later, some of them severely criticised and a lot of them poor and obscure, today command hundreds of millions of dollars for their creation, which at one point was sold in exchange for favours or as little as “sailor’s pay.” What is it that attracts today’s world so pointedly towards these old masters – as the author goes on to describe, its the limited supply, the uniqueness, the pride of owning something no one else can have and much more. As the book describes in an analogy – imagine if there was only one book available for each title – such a world is unimaginable to me, as that would mean owning or even reading a book would become an enterprise only for the mega rich.

The Norwegian theft of “the scream” as described is hilarious to the point of silly. Two thieves placed a ladder from a nearby construction site near the museum, in the later part of the day, to use during the night. Since the Edward Munch collection had been brought from third floor to second floor for an exhibition, made the crime utterly simple. The thief claimed up the ladder, broke the window with a hammer, climbed in and grabbed the painting and were on their way within 50 seconds. While the crime was in progress, the night guard, who could have seen the activity on the monitor, was busy with the paperwork.

The book is truly about Charley Hill – a legend from the London Art Squad, who after a few successes was able to get involved and help the Norwegians in tracking the painting and its return to the museum. Book goes on to describe prior cases resolved by Hill and his approach to the art crime, his role plays and mannerisms, his understanding of the crime world and criminals that led to many a success stories. What baffles is the punishment doled out to these art criminals when they are caught – nowhere in the book i read, anyone getting more than a four year sentence for stealing something which might sell for more than 50 million dollars in the open market.

What is interesting to note is that same paintings were stolen from Rossborough house many times, over and over again. Though the security was beefed up each time a theft took place, the thieves took it as a personal challenge to get to the paintings and do away with them. The intent was never to sell them – since its not very easy to sell stolen art, it was more pride in the fact, that it could be done. “If somebody’s going to show you something and tell you its worth millions, well, then, you’re going to take it.”

Art and art theft in the real world is not as glamorous as projected by Hollywood – there is no James Bond or Dr No. At the end of the book we find Charley Hill set up as a private detective still chasing art and art thieves and we discover that “the scream” had been stolen, yet again in 2004, though was discovered two years later (as per wikipedia).

The Art Forger – B.A.Shapiro

“A painting is above all a product of the artist’s imagination; it must never be a copy” Edgar Degas

The quote sounds most appropriate for opening the review, as the book is. Paintings, Edgar Degas, forgery, Gardner Heist and romance – what can be better than this book, to spend a Sunday with! This is one of my favourite books and i enjoyed reading it yet again today.

Claire Roth – the great pretender, is an astonishingly brilliant artist with a penchant for finding trouble. First, its Issac, her teacher, mentor and married boyfriend, who when facing an artist blocks, allows a painting in 4D dimension painted by Claire to be put forward in a  competition signed under his name. When the painting becomes an instant hit, he breaks up with Claire since he finds himself in need to put a distance from the true artist behind his fame. Claire, in a fit of peeve, follows her heart and tries to tell the truth, causing museums, art society and newspapers to question the provenance of the painting and Issac to commit suicide. “And in contradiction to conventional wisdom, i was fast discovering that there was, indeed, such a things as bad publicity”

Picking up pieces and shunned by the art society in Boston, Claire is approached by Aidan Markel, who wants her to forge a Degas. This part of the book where Claire loses herself in Degas’s painting is a joy to read. “His use of dark and light values to create texture, depth, and shadow. How he seizes an unselfconscious moment of everyday life, like the mother and wet nurse in Races pressed together as they proudly gaze at the infant, then sends it galloping away.” While painting the forgery, Claire also establishes that the painting which Aidan considers to be an original stolen during the famous Gardner heist, is actually not an original Degas after all.

Post forgery detection, which puts Aidan in jail, forces Claire to find the original (not all thirteen paintings stolen during heist) and links her name to yet another notoriety. At conclusion, the reader finally finds the gratification of seeing Claire recognised for her talent associated with her own original paintings and not yet another copy. “But, just desserts, it’s impossible to know if this newfound fortune is due to my talent or to my infamy in a world of instant celebrity. Whether i’m a great artist or just a great forger.”

The book runs in three main parallel themes – Claire’s past, her present and Isabella Gardener’s letters to her niece detailing her affair with Degas and acquisition of the painting in question – “After the bath.” Its hard not to feel bad for Claire who seems to draw a short end of the stick at every turn. She lost one man to death, who couldn’t stand the thought of her being a better painter than him and another one to FBI.

The techniques detailed in the book of original painters and the forgers is quite interesting – reading about creating a copy of more than 100 year old paintings within a span of few days was absolutely fascinating. Author has kept the book details interesting and light, thus allowing the reader to drive pleasure from the same, without getting bored or overwhelmed with it all. Authors ingenuity in taking a painting out of the world famous heist and weaving a spellbinding story around it is commendable.

The Muralist, also by B.A.Shapiro is next on my reading list. Looking forward to it!

Judas – Amos Oz

I discovered this author and book on my trip to Israel. Instead of buying souvenir from my travels, i like to collect books to remember the places. It is one of my better finds.

Judas, as the name suggests, is not a religious book, but it does delve into the question of whether Judas was a traitor or the first Christian to truly believe in Jesus as God. If you have strong religious beliefs, then this book is not for you – since it explores religion, Israel and Arab conflict, settlement of Israel state and a nation, and keeping an open mind is the key to truly enjoying this book.

Shmuel, a university student is writing his Master’s thesis on ‘Jewish Views of Judas’, when his girlfriend left him to marry her ex-boy friend, stating that Shmuel was immature and suffering from extreme mood swings between euphoria and melancholy. Shmuel is a loner and with short attention span, especially when he is not the one talking or lecturing. Shmuel spends the day of his girlfriends wedding in emergency ward getting treated for a severe Asthma attack.

Shmuel decides to leave his thesis and Jerusalem and start afresh, when his parents are declared bankrupt and are no longer able to support him and his education. While putting up a notice for sale of his personal effects, he notices another requirement for a young man required as a companion to an elderly, providing both board and a minimal salary. Thus, our protagonist, decides to take up this offer – one who gets bored after 3-4 sentences of hearing someone else talk, takes up a job of listening.

During his stay in the house at Rabbi Elbaz Lane, he comes across Wald and his daughter in law Atalia, who he immediately is fascinated with. During his 5-6 hours of work in the evenings, Wald and Shmuel discuss broad range of topics – including formation of Israel and role of Judas, as a traitor or not. Shmuel stays at this job for three months and discovers the entanglements of the life of occupants, falls intensely in love with Atalia and starts to feel at home. At the end, we find Shmuel standing on a dusty road, wondering where he should go? what he should do?

Though, a simple sounding book, the more interesting parts are the conversations that take place every evening. Very ingeniously parallels are drawn on what a traitor is – someone who led God to crucifixion on the strength of his belief and commits suicide when that faith fails him or someone who considers the formation of Israel by antagonising the Arabs in the region as setting up of a time bomb, which would ultimately lead to destruction? Who is right – Jews who have known no home except Jerusalem since time immemorial or Arabs who were thrown out  and displaced from their own homes to provide space for these persecuted jews, who migrated to Jerusalem from all over the world? Could there have been a more peaceful solution possible, leading to amicable coexistence of the two communities?

“Judaism and Christianity, and Islam too, all drip honeyed words of love and mercy, so long as they do not have access to handcuffs, grilles, dominion, torture chambers and gallows.”

Its a book to savour and to re-read pages / paragraphs, where the characters evolve gradually and stay with you long after you have finished reading. Whenever you will read about Israel conflict elsewhere, some of the lines from this book will come back to you.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

What a delightful book to read on a Saturday afternoon. This simple and elegant book is a long listed on booker and is a debut novel of Rachel Joyce. “The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.”  This normal, regular, touching, moving and extraordinary tale of Harold Fry will make you sit back and think or even better, do something spontaneous.

Harold Fry, six months post retirement receives a letter from a long lost colleague, who at some point was a friend and a confidant, that she is in the last stages of cancer and wanted to say good bye. Harold, going through difficult time of his own, with his life falling apart, tells his wife that he is going to go and post a letter to “Queenie” (colleague). Something breaks lose in Harold on his way to the post office and inspired by a girl behind a snack bar, he starts a journey with a belief that if he keeps walking towards Queenie, his faith will  keep her alive.

This book is his journey of initial 500 miles, which ultimately turns out to be 600 miles plus, with all the detours and wrong turns. He is an old man without proper shoes, maps or any other paraphernalia, out on a mission to save someone. As Harold continues along, he discovers how unfit he is physically, he comes across people who show him kindness and some of their belief boosts his determination. You come across him sending post cards to his wife, to Queenie and to the girl at the snack bar. Once he overcomes his physical challenges and his body becomes attuned to his sudden strenuous regime, you as a reader will be able to feel the strength of his resolve.

At some point, reality catches up with Harold, when he suddenly finds himself popular, thanks to social-media and seems to have acquired a band wagon of followers. The book depicts the social degeneration via these followers diluting or seeming to take over Harold’s mission for fame and self satisfaction (urge to lead in some people is too strong, for them to really be followers). Harold is kind to the people but nothing deters him from his path – after all, no one else has lived his life, and cannot understand the meaning of this journey to him.

During this long arduous walk, Harold discovers himself by reminiscing his past – his estranged mother – who did not want to be a mother, his father – who turned him out at sixteen into the world, his wife – who wanted to be the world to him and judged Harold on his inability to be a good father, and his son – who Harold loves very much, but finds himself unable to express as much. Harold finds himself thinking about the past interactions with Queenie and what she did for him and how Harold let her go without even a thanks.

This is a book of self discovery and belief and spontaneity. It makes you think about the relationships you’ve let go or hurt you have harboured deep inside, without any outlet. “There were times, he saw, when not knowing was the biggest truth, and you had to stay with that.” Its heartbreaking to discover that Harold looked for his son, who had committed suicide, in every young man who was lost that he came across.


Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

Tomorrow begins from another dawn, when we will be fast asleep.

Remember what i say; not everything will pass.

China and its history, though fascinating and brutal, has also been a dangerous one to tell. In this book, author has combined music, mathematics and family to describe and define the revolution, that seems to rock China’s every generation – basic premise of each revolution remains the same – the deaths, suicides, repercussions, brutality, denunciations; only the format changes from red army going door to door to find the bourgeoisie and sending people for re-education to demonstrations in Tiananmen square and the world condemned massacre. “Everyone said that the foreign newspapers were reporting a massacre in Tiananmen Square, but she had been in the Square. She has seen the students walk away. Didn’t they know the tanks had come from the outside? Didn’t they know about the parents, the workers, the children who had died?”

Marie or Li-Ling in Canada, is ten years old, when her father, who had left them a few years ago, commits suicide, in HongKong. Marie and her mother are provided a sudden reprieve in form of Ai-Ming, who arrives from China, a fugitive. Ai-Ming is instrumental in bringing the history and life of Kai (Marie’s father) along with her. Though, Ai-Ming leaves for America within a few months, the two girls are bonded, by the shared history of their fathers.

Marie, in her mid-thirties starts on the quest to find Ai-Ming, who seems to have disappeared. The main search, though unfulfilled till the end of the book, takes the main protagonist to places, to people who have come across her father and her bonded friend / sister. The book is not about the search nor is it investigative, it is a narrative of three generations who have lived through different formats of cultural revolution in China – some survived and some didn’t. It is a story of the impact, of the lives taken and lost, of words and opinions that never got voiced and of abandoned dreams.

Language is rich (and musical) and characters deep and, in a way satisfying – neither perfect nor hateful. This magnificent insight into China’s civil war will make you sit back and think – things we take for granted – small freedoms, small happiness – which would mean the world to someone else somewhere else.

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I bought this book at the airport and the reviews sounded encouraging. For me, this turned out to be an average book with average story, easy read in the airplane.

Ove is 59 years old, who lost his wife 6 months ago. The day post his “early retirement”, which he is forced into by the managers at his work place, he decides to commit suicide. Everyday, while he is planning for it to be his last day, life keeps interrupting his plans and the decision keeps moving forward by a day. Once he goes so far as to drill a hook in the ceiling and put the noose around his neck, only to have the rope break.

He lost his mother at a young age and father, when he was sixteen. Ove is a solitary person by nature, who loves his wife. “People said Ove saw the world in black and white. but she was colour. All the colour he had.” This story is Ove’s tale of being rescued from solitary existence and untimely death by the neighbours around him. Beneath his hard exterior and gruff manner, there is a gentle kind soul, who would not let people suffer – and would justify it to himself by thinking, that is what his wife would have wanted.

Writing is contemporary, with some humorous segments. I found the book over emotional. I enjoyed reading about Ove – his “nerdy” personality, his inflexibility, his intensity. After initial period of struggle, when Ove finally seemed to be happy with his wife (around half way down the book), it seemed all to go downhill and i started losing interest. It just starts sounding too “movie like” when suddenly everyone around him starts to treat him like a hero and forgets about his rudeness and completely ignores his need for privacy. It is a predictable plot and a fair enough airport read.

The Eight – Katherine Neville

570 pages of pure ambrosia for those who enjoy a good Historical Fiction. Combination of History and chess has been turned into  a scintillating thriller, full of historical characters, transporting readers across the world from America to Europe to Africa, all on a quest regarding Montglane Chess Service, which lies at the very centre of this ingenious plot. In my personal opinion, i would consider this a contemporary version of Alice in Wonderland, with the plot set within the real history of the world.

From within, the forms radiate their magic rules

Homeric castle, nimble knight,

Armoured queen, backward king,

Oblique bishop, and aggressive pawns

Story begins in 1790 at Montglane Abbey in France with two novices – Mireille and Valentine, who are tasked with a special mission by the Abbess and sent forth to Paris. “The Montglane Service” the legendary chess set gifted to Charlemagne by Ibn Al Arabi, governor of Barcelona, in reality came from the Moors and is covered in mystic and black magic. Abbess exhumes the pieces of this chess set, along with the board and the cloth covering the same and attempts to scatter all of them far and wide. This chess set had been buried beneath the Abbey for thousand years with a curse.

Cursed is He who bring these walls to Earth

The King is checked by the Hand of God alone.

While Mirelle and Valentine are swarmed by the French Revolution and trying to collect and keep safe the pieces, the story moves into the present i,e, 1972. Catherine Vellis, a computer expert, hired by a CPA firm is being shipped off to Algeria after a confrontation and minor rebellion against one of the corrupt partners at the firm.

As the author says, “in the game of life the pawns are teh should of chess. and even a lowly pawn can change its dress.”, the reader goes through the journey with Cat – who transforms from a pawn to the Black Queen with fortune teller, chess players, computer genius, murders and mayhem and secret police along the way.

The stories of Mirelle and Cat go hand in hand, both astounded to find themselves in the middle of this dangerous game, first in denial and then seeking to take control, change the course of things.

Its a fast paced story, keeping the reader glued to the pages for more. Dry humour keeps the book from becoming a history tome ” This nation of shoemakers has reversed the very order of nature.” The mathematical and scientific details have been simplified, making them easy to understand and of course, living through the course of history – the French terror, Napoleons rise and defeat and coming across famous poets and mathematicians and musicians keeps things intriguing.

The consolidation of all stories together, towards an epic ending is predictable. What else, but the very “elixir” lies at the heart of this mythical chess service. Question is who will be able to resist the temptation enough to actually destroy the whole set?

“you mean a real chess game? with people as the pieces?”

The Madonnas of Leningrad – Debra Dean

“What is left that is heartbreaking? Not death; death is ordinary. What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp. Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers. What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world”

Marina, suffering from Alzheimer’s finds herself living more and more in the past with the present is being eaten away. While unable to remember her children and grandchildren with much clarity, she finds herself roaming the Hermitage, where she was a tour guide before war years and helped pack it all away, and recalling the paintings from her “memory palace” with greater lucidity. The book opens in 1941, where erstwhile Soviet Union is getting ready to fight the Germans with high optimism at Luga. Marina says goodbye to her childhood friend Dimitr with agreement to getting married when he is back.

As the war forces draw closer to Leningrad, Marina finds herself putting more and more knowledge of The Hermitage away into her memory palace, while fighting the cold and hunger and despair which is pervasive all around her. The details about 250 grams of bread lasting a person through the day is beyond heartbreaking. Amidst this calamitous world, Marina finds herself pregnant, which provides her with a reason not to give up.

The story is written in present, when Marina is over eighty years old and surrounded by her family, and her mind keeps taking her back to the past that must be preserved. Marina and Dimitri (her husband) have locked up the war years into deep recesses, so much so that their children are unaware of why mother insists on no food being wasted at all. When Marina, inadvertently mentions living in a cellar with hundreds of people and eating glue, the knowledge is shocking to them.

At the end, we find everyone searching for Marina, since she seems to have disappeared in her quest to bring chocolates over to those who are fading away from hunger, and is found hiding in a fireplace of a building under construction. She is discovered by a worker who arrives at work on a Monday morning, where Marina goes on to show him the beauty in nothing and everything around him “She was showing me the world”

This book is a pleasure to read. If you enjoy art and the old masters, this book helps you visualise some of the famous works. It helps understand the everyday life in Soviet Union during war and of course, engages the emotions of the reader with heart wrenching loss of memory, while your dear ones can only stand by, helpless, watching you fade away, gradually.

I Saw Her That Night – Drago Jancar

Written by one of the most well known Slovenian author, Drago Jancar and translated by Michael Biggins, this book “I saw her that night” is set during the turbulent period in Slovenian history.

Veronika – or rather where is Veronika is the question? The writing is ingenious, since the book is not in first person but the character is built based on other people’s memories and perceptions. The reader finds that each persons account adds a bit more colour to who Veronika is.

As Veronika’s lover, a cavalry man and a horse riding instructor remembers when he fell in love with a married woman and who, unpredictably, decides to elope with him when he is reassigned. After a brief period of time and another reassignment later, Stevan finds the aura of the new affair fading away and cold distance creeping between them. A part of it can be assigned to Veronika’s mothers visits, where she brings news of the cuckolded husband – who has bought a manor.

Reader then finds the mother berating herself for making Veronika go back to her husband and regretting. This is when we stumble upon the knowledge that one night Veronika and her husband Leo left with some people and have not been seen again. Mother spends her time glued to the window waiting for them to show up.

Then story moves to a German doctor, who has just received a letter requesting for information about Veronika’s whereabouts. In his recollections, we see Veronika as kind, social, empathatic person, who befriends people irrespective of their politics, which is of no interest to her. German doctor burns the missive, since the very thought that something might have befallen his friends, due to their association with him, is enough to cause him chest pain. He is fairly certain that Veronika and her husband had been taken away by Slovenian rebels “Partisans” and are no longer alive.

Jozi, who works in the house, then remembers the fateful night when the event took place – the chaos, the fear, the mayhem. The life has gone on for some and some others are still missing.

Fifth narrator is the key in bringing the story together, for he is the one, who in his ignorance and jealousy, betrayed those who were kind to him and led them to their brutal death at the hands of their own countrymen.

This book is not so much about the story or the war crime, but more about the language, the character building and the way author step by step reveals Veronika to the readers. The story does not take us right into the heart of the war but remains on the fringes, where people are trying to stay alive, live a life as best as they can. They are willing to put their faith in the illusion that they will come out of the war alright.





The Man Who Spoke Snakish – Andrus Kivirahk

This fantasy fiction novel is an enchanting piece of work written by an Estonian author, translated by Christopher Moseley. I haven’t checked it out, but a board game is also available based on the book 🙂

The tale is set in a fantastical version of medieval Estonia. The story is of a boy named Leemet, who can speak “Snakish”. “Snakish” (which auto correct does not recognise as a legitimate word) is the language taught by snakes to the humans, to converse, command and interact with animals. Leemet finds this language quite hard to learn from his uncle, and manages to be last man who spoke Snakish. It is the time of transition in Estonia – when pagans and forest dwellers are moving to villages and discovering farming and bread. As more and more people move away, they forget the language of the forest and start living by strange rules of foreigners and Christianity. Leemet, along with his family, is a few who resist the allure of village and try to uphold the old ways as best as they can. There comes a time of conflict between villagers and forest dwellers – when their individual beliefs are in conflict – as per villagers, snakes personify devil, whereas, Leemet knows that snakes are the friends.

As Leemet realises that the world around him is changing and never to go back, it also makes the reader think about how evolution over the centuries must have taken place. “where there was once dry land, the sea now splashed, and i had not had time to grow gills” perfectly describes who hold out against the change and are swept away by the sheer force of it. Its interesting to read, how the change is sometimes based on blind faith into the unknown and fascination towards what is new – not necessarily good or bad. The people who moved from forest to villages simply did that because they were fascinated by the various tools used in farming, new type of food and later from sheer need to be in a society and not left alone. Leemet, at the end is left alone ” was used to the knowledge that i was the last. Everywhere and always.”

The ending is a bit disappointing. The book starts with the legend of “Frog of the North” who is asleep and can be waken up in times of need, if lots of people call out to him in Snakish. In the end we see that Leemet has found the “Frog of the north” and spends the remaining life taking care of him.

It is a very interesting read, philosophical in way, if you dwell deeper into the story. There is a lot more in the book – friends who change once they move to a different way of life, bears who salivate after young women and seduce them, snakes who invite humans to hibernate with them in winters, Primates who think people of the forests are modern – thus depicting a transition between three stages, grandfather who can fly with the help of wings made from human bones and wind bag and wolves that are milked and ridden. The reader will find humour in the beginning, however, darker side is revealed as the story progresses.

Smilla’s sense of snow – Peter Hoeg

The title intrigued me. The back cover synopsis described a regular thriller, i was intrigued since the book is based in Greenland and Copenhagen. I have read tons of thrillers, including those by Eric Ambler and P.D.James with their rich language and intriguing plots. This one is a bit boring, to be honest. The book goes into long paragraphs (pages, even) of mathematical details and scientific facts, some of which are extremely technical and ultimately, to figure out where the author was leading to, i had to skip over them.

The plot is based on a murder of a child, ruled accidental death by the police, which a neighbour (Smilla) does not agree with. Isaiah (child in question) had fallen off the roof of a tall building and as Smilla explained to whoever was willing to listen – Isaiah was scared of heights. Though always describing herself as emotionally detached and even cold, choosing single life over marriage and children, she is disturbed and takes it upon herself to discover the truth. As thriller goes, there is a villain (or rather a set of them) who try to intimidate her, threaten her and even kill her into abandoning her research. The book takes us into the deepest parts of Greenland in quest for a large piece of meteorite and certain living organisms (worms) which could make some people very rich and powerful.

Being single myself, i am not sure i totally agreed with authors portrayal of Smilla’s single life, but i will give him the benefit of doubt since he did make the character complex due to childhood trauma of losing mother and brother and a father who is largely absent.

The book goes on to elucidate the life in Greenland which i found very educational and strengthened my resolve to visit at some point in future.

The History of Love – Nicole Krauss

Extraordinarily Devastating!
An author who can create a character so invisible (and yet visible), so forgettable and yet evocative, so ordinary and yet remarkable is an artist, no a celebrated, distinguished artist in my humble opinion.

Leo(pold) Gursky from Poland has only ever loved one woman in his life – Alma Merminski – he lived for her and will ultimately die with her thoughts as his sole companion. Leo and Alma are childhood sweethearts, who impression each other over the growing up years and share experiences – first kiss, first intercourse….Alma is sent to US from Poland and Leo, post losing his family in holocaust follows her to the US. When Leo finds her, he discovers, she had a child by him and believing him to be dead is married to another. Leo walks away from his happiness, his love, his child to ensure his sweetheart is happy with the new life.

Leo lives the rest of his life vicariously – watching his child from a distance, trying to find pleasure in things his child likes. He writes a book “History of Love” to immortalise his love and sends them to Alma from Poland while she is in US. The manuscript is entrusted to a friend who moves to Chile during war years and believing (again) Leo to be dead publishes it in his own name, under marital pressure. Leo writes another book, which he sends to his son (who doesn’t know about Leo) and is later shown to be considered as the last manuscript of Leo’s son (Issac) post his death.

The story revolves around the first book “History of Love” – a copy of which is purchased and gifted by an engineer to his wife, who then name their daughter Alma based on the character in the book. Post the engineer’s death, the daughter in her quest to connect with her father, and trying to find happiness for her mother, begins searching for Alma from the book.

The book ends with a meeting between Leo and Alma and the reader is astounded by how the two stories come together and in the most beautiful way.

There are sub-themes in the book related to Holocaust (since all characters are Jews) and plagiarism, but for me, the story is simply about Leo and nothing else. He, who was forgotten by everyone – his love, his son, his readers, his life….He who had to carry a note in his pocket saying he has no family and where his burial plot, if he is found dead. The one who has “word for everything” is rendered speechless in the end.

Glass Houses – Louise Penny

Glass Houses is the 13th book in Chief Inspector Gamache series and the latest release. I have been reading / following this series since it was first published in 2005 (well! when you read 300 plus books a year, there are a lot of series to follow). It is based in Quebec, Canada and as obvious from the title, is a thriller novel series with murder, mystery, mayhem and beautiful poetry (unusual, i know)

Who hurt you, once,
so far beyond repair
that you would meet each overture
with curling lip?
While we, who knew you well,
your friends, (the focus of your scorn)
could see your courage in the face of fear,
your wit, and thoughtfulness,
and will remember you,
with something close to love. (Bury your dead)

As per me, the poem above symbolises the sensitivity and care with which each book is written. Glass Houses – i think tops all of it. It is so beautifully written, drawing the reader towards the ending the author is driving at, with suspense, conviction and interest.

Cobrador – the debt collector, first started in 1300’s is dressed in top hat and tails and he follows debtors. He is the central figure or the trigger to this entire book. Day after Halloween, cobrador appears in the Three Pines village, where Inspector Gamache resides. He makes the entire population of the village uncomfortable, just by implication of his presence. Presence leads to a murder, murder to an investigation, which in turn leads inspector and his band of loyal followers to discover the notorious drug cartel operating at a large scale under a shadow umbrella across Canada and America. It sounds pretty standard, but trust me – its anything but stale story. The beauty is in the writing, the book lies in between the lines that author has so well crafted.

It almost makes you wish, real life was as uncorrupt, challenging and loyal (for lack of better word – easy). As the author wrote in her acknowledgements – “Three Pines is a state of mind. When we choose tolerance over hate. Kindness over cruelty. Goodness over bullying. When we choose to be hopeful, not cynical. Then we live in Three Pines”

Three Daughters of Eve – Elif Shafak

Spellbinding! the only way i can think of describing this book. It is discursive with attention paid to each digression. It was hard not to find myself thinking about multiple things all at once, while reading. The theological debate about existence of God, the religious question on what is right vs wrong, the social difference between rich and poor, the female – male predicament all adroitly woven into a tale that keeps the reader on their toes yearning for more.

Peri has a divided family – a father and a brother who are liberal in their thinking and a mother and a brother who are devout. She is the referee, so to say, neither a believer nor the one to doubt – somewhere in between. Her need to be the peace keeper develops her personality into a complicated, self critical and self doubtful being. At Oxford, she encounters multiple personalities and begins to discover herself away from her family and home. She finds herself attracted towards Professor Azur, who teaches “God” at the university, primarily because she feels he might have answers to the questions and confusions and uncertainties in her mind. Always neutral Peri takes one step in her life, which impacts everyone around her. The story is narrated alternately in past and present, where past is unforgotten and remorse colors the present.

In a way, its a simple book to read and yet poignant. There are theological questions raised, which makes a reader pause and look for/at their own beliefs. The cultural differences amongst east and west, known yet alien require questioning our perceptions – are the answers really that easy? or perhaps not?

“We can find our true selves only in the faces of the Other.”