The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” Anna Karenina

I read this book through the night, slept a few hours and woke up happy. Considering the countless number of books written and read on war, leading to war, during the war and post war, my expectations were moderate. This book did me a world of good, especially during a low period in my life. It reminded me that while death might be the reality, I still need to get on with the business of living, so there is not a moment to lose, or to regret.

The book has a whole lot of motley caste living in Chilbury village – an overbearing, patriarchal, brutal father with a cowering mother and two beautiful daughters, normal in every way, except they have just lost their eldest son / brother to a war submarine explosion. Brigadier needs a son to keep the wealth in the family, fortunately his wife is pregnant. The book opens at the funeral and choir is at the centre of it all.

We go through the book via a series of letters written between friends, acquaintances and sometimes banal correspondence, as well as daily diary notations. Chilbury is left mostly with women and old men to fend for themselves, with men gone off to the war or killed during the war. Choir without men is unimaginable but a choirmistress, a force of nature brings it together and convinces the ladies to continue singing, to relieve the stress, the pain and boredom of the war all around.

“Sometimes the magic of life is beyond thought. Its the sparkle of intuition, of bringing your own personal energy into your music”

The story progresses as the choir leads to amazing performances and stands out by winning a competition at a church with candles abound, what with war blackouts and no organ available due to lack of electricity. Choir goes on to perform in various villages to help uplift the spirit of people suffering through bombed existence, loss of loved ones and lack of, well, everything. Though the book is not just about the choir but the lives of the choir group. How the group sticks together to support each other, creates a sense of community for those left behind and grieves together for the ones lost forever, by remembering them and celebrating their lives.

Without giving away too much, the story unfolds with a baby swapping scandal, unwed pregnancy, billeting woes and children losing their parents. Some things remain the same, war or no war, greed knows no bounds, gold diggers continue on their path and sometimes life takes strange turns and coming of age is both heartbreaking and painful.

I am glad I read this book and at this moment, too. “Realising that you’re going to die actually makes life better as its only then that you decide to live the life you really want to live, not the one everyone else wants you to live. And to thoroughly enjoy every minute”

Thank you for the reminder dear author!

The Kaiser’s Web – Steve Berry

What an outstanding book!

If you are a historical fiction enthusiast with penchant to follow current day politics, this book is an absolute treat.

“If history has taught us nothing else, we have learned that we must defend ourselves against extremism…..from the beginning”

Author has done a marvellous job of linking past with the present and subtly pointing out how the history might end up repeating itself….almost. The poignancy of the issue surrounding human nature on compartmentalising the past and yet replicating the same behaviour in the modern world scenario is simply too conspicuous to ignore. The play of emotions be it via Nazi’s leading to holocaust or issues surrounding immigration which are at the root of discord all over the world, still remain the same and still remain available for manipulation.

“The masses have little time to think.And how incredible is the willingness of modern man to believe.”

Steve Berry is one of my favourite authors for the historical fiction genre and his books are delight simply because they shine with the amount of research and effort put into them. Of course, the book is fiction, however the walk across World War II is as true as possible and the consequences are always a scenario away from “could have been”

The book revolves around German politics and specifically Chancellorship, which is in trouble due to hidden information being brought to light to mis-lead into a web woven by an entirely narcissistic and overconfident character. The question in play is regarding the genetics of the two contenders for chancellorship, their link to Hitler and his associates and eventual impact on people and perhaps world as a whole. If you are familiar with the books, Cotton Malone and Cassiopeia don’t disappoint with their insight and ability to stay step ahead in the game.

“The game was the same everywhere, Only the players changed, not the rules, not the stakes, not the risks – only the players”

The current chancellor receives information, which steers her towards further research, where Malone and Cassiopeia enter. On their quest to find the truth, hunter becomes the hunted and the information leads to Hitler’s bounty and the unaware benefactors, which threatens to change the elections outcome. Help comes from unpredictable quarters and quest deepens when parentage comes into question. Discoveries lead to an interesting conclusion, which you will need to find for yourself while reading and you will, possibly like me will be left chewing on your nails until the very end.

There is much said and written about the World War II, the history of it, the victims, aftermath, participants and the eventual fallout. This book brings forward the war from the perspective of Germany and Germans, after all who wants to be on the losing side with the entire world watching and judging. Yes Germany has recovered and yes Germany is atoning for the sins of their forefathers but how does ir feel and is it the same feeling across all?

No one will know the truth of who died and who lived or rather escaped – Is Hitler truly dead? Did any of his closest aides survive? Did Eva Braun manage to flee? We will never know. This book is a spin off based on authors imagination and a compulsive read for the readers.

“”As arrogant pedantic fools often do, he thought himself the smartest and the cleverest”

Confessions of a Forty-Something F**k Up – Alexandra Potter

“Dont worry about getting older, worry about becoming dull”

Well, as a forty something myself, I was quite curious to see how other similar aged species thinks, behaves and even writes about this stage in life. Though, written in a light tone, this book has incredible depth. The things that will sound funny, will have most profound meaning behind them. Just because people smile and laugh, you don’t see the pain and sadness hidden behind their eyes.

I loved reading it and relating it to some of my own life experiences. There are people we perceive as ‘happy’ or ‘successful’ and may even feel envious towards but no one can live other person lives. We see the facade that has been put out for the world, what we don’t see is the mess in the background. Sometimes the book did get a bit preachy and sounded almost like a motivational quote my parents insist on sharing on whatsapp, but the good parts are really great.

Just because you are forty and it seems like you have achieved all the goals you had set out for yourself when you were in your twenties or just out of college, does not mean that you are done and that is it. Life still goes on and in its usual ways still insists on throwing curve balls your way, every once in a while to keep things interesting and alive. It’s scary, it’s hard and there are no right or wrong answers, but I guess with good friends, good wine and a sense of humour you can get through most of it alive and relatively happy. “Embrace your sense of humour, don’t ever take yourself too seriously, every day is another chance to laugh instead of cry, and when nothing is certain, everything is a hell of a lot less scary when you make fun of it”

I like the part where author writes about happiness. We are told to be happy but no one can be happy all the time. “We’re encouraged to be our true, authentic selves, but being told to feel happy when you’re just not feeling, only encourages us to be exact opposite. Life can be wonderful but I can also be scary and hard. We should be free to feel sad or gloomy or just downright bloody miserable, without feeling like there’s something wrong with us”

The book is about a “Forty-something” (obviously) who feels like a failure sans job, sans engagement and sans the perfect planned life. She feels envious of friends who seem so put together and ends up finding work as an obituary writer – which is freelance and barely gets her through. The struggle of a single person to (happily) participate in married friends discussions is super relatable. Well, no one enjoys talking about babies and nannies and what not all the time! She finds camaraderie with a eighty year old. It’s almost like a book about coming of an age, just at a different juncture in life. Its beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking but mostly happy and one that will make you smile.

She starts a podcast, I think as a catharsis and ends up becoming inspirational for women struggling with similar anxieties. Old friends and new friends come together in support, love finds its way into her life and life seems somewhat back on track. Happiness attracts happiness – to be loved, you have to first fall in love with your self (of course not in a narcissistic way).

If you are looking for a happy and optimistic read – this is definitely the one for you.

“Remove the filters and the hashtags and the motivational messages and we’re all just as scared and confused as the next person”

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt – Anonymous

“The only way to be reliably sure the hero gets the girl at the end of the story is to be both the hero and the girl yourself”

The delight at encountering a super fun and super positive book is beyond description. I came across this gem while I was voting on goodreads for the best books of 2020. I think i have a hangover from this book – its making me smile or laugh or think ever since I finished reading it.

Ofcourse I went on twitter to check the Duchess Goldblatt account and read the posts and the interactions, while reading the book – after all the writer is anonymous! The account does exist and has been active and loved for several years now.

This book dear readers, is a navigational memoir of a very kind and loving soul, whose life has been peppered with moments of loss and moments of joy. It leads you to understand what led to the creation of the account, how theraputic it was for the creater / author, how distinctly different the personas of the person holding the account vs the character they create was – at least to the mind of the author.

The book goes back and forth between how author views the character Duchess Goldblatt in comparison to self as well as what specific events in authors life led to development of this fictional character. It almost seems to fill some gaps author feels in their life or personality. It’s endearing at times and heart breaking at others, but at no point does it turn boring.

The snippets from the twitter accounts post are funny, sarcastic and sometime melancholic, all at the same time.

Now that I am following the Duchess or “her grace” as well, I believe it might just be a start of a beautiful friendship.

“Writers can be a lot of fun at parties, but word to the wise: Keep an eye on your good memories. They’ll strip them down for parts”

“I found a box of old hours at the back of the fridge. I don’t even know how long it had been there. Summer hours. Smelled like roses.”

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams,” Thoreau had said. “Live the life you’ve imagine.”

As an author, Matt Haig’s books hit close to home. His characters portray a depth close to reality, embodying both failure and negativity, which is not entirely unknown to most of us. He reminds the readers that life is a combination of reasons – reasons to regret and yet reasons to celebrate. Focusing on any one of these aspects can easily derail the balance and cause anguish.

As Guardian review rightly said – The midnight library is a celebration of life’s possibilities. Though light in tone and easy to read, it packs an impactful punch. It could lead you towards that metaphorical light that had been evading you these past few months.

“she wished there was nothing but doors ahead of her, which she could walk through one by one, leaving everything behind”

Dejection. Desolation. Depression.

Most of us are familiar with these feelings, either as an integral part of living or a small part of our self hidden deep in a corner of our psyche. The question is – are we able to identify them as such and overcome them.

Nora Seed, 35 year old talented swimmer – who gave up swimming to hide from attention instead of going on to be the Olympic winner, outstanding musician – gave up the dream team instead of going on to be the rock star, philosophy graduate – instead of being the glaciologist that could have led for her to contribute in saving the world in a meaningful way, is going through the roughest day of her life

Nora’s cat dies, she loses a job that she has held on to though its way below her skill set, lost touch with her best (and only) friend and is on a “ignore” list of her brother.

Hitting rock bottom puts her in touch with a midnight library existing somewhere between life and death, which gives her a chance to explore all those lives she could have had, if and only if, she had taken a different decision at some critical points in her life.

This book explores the many lives Nora could have lived, if she had decided to pick a dream, either hers or that of an important person in her life and lived it. These possible, un-lived lives of Nora, also provide an insight into the balance universe creates around the decisions we make and the chances we decide to take. If she had decided to move to Australia with her best friend, it could also mean a life grieving the death of that very friend, lost to a car accident soon after.

Nora decides to pick her own “root life” in the end, the very one she had been meaning to end. Though poignant in some ways, the books ending is a cliche. Nora survives her suicide attempt, stronger with her will to live and to make changes leading to happiness. Being a fiction, as the book is, suddenly in the next one day everything starts turning in her favour.

In real life, going from a despondency to optimism may take longer than the book, but it does happen. It happens when we start finding the reasons to be happy. It happens when we decide to accept life as it comes and yet live to the fullest in spite of it.

“there was no way of living that can immunise you against sadness. And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, they come in different degrees and quantities. But there is no life where you cab be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.”

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, has 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 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 🙂

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 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 🙂

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!

A Tiny Bit Marvellous – Dawn French

If you have aversion to regular British style profanities – this book is not for you. Supremely funny, a page turner and an absolutely perfect airport / airplane read. If you have teenage kids, you might even find it relatable with a bit (or many goose pimples) and nightmarish moments of “is it similar….nah!”

The story revolves around a mother – who being a child psychologist considers herself an authority on her own children – not, teenage girl with usual insecurities about beauty and self-worth, teenage boy experimenting with his own sexuality and way too precocious (very adorable) and a loving rock solid dad taking care of all of them, even though a bit in the background.

The book is written in a diary format from everyone’s point of view, so a chance is provided to all characters to unleash their inner paranoia and language is quite relatable to everyday life – though i am not sure, i can ever imagine using F word in front of my parents or (horrifying) attributed to them – oh well! what do i know about the current generation.

It is, in all honesty, a marvellous family – fun to read about and filling you with a warm affectionate feeling. If you are looking for an easy read and few laughs – this one sure fits the bill.