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 Banker’s Wife – Cristina Alger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ­čÖé

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below lines did resonate with me as a reader,

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

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

The Wife Between Us – Greer Hendricks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.” ┬áThis 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 ┬ákeep 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.

 

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.