“Every Last One” by Anna Quindlen

Note: This write-up contains spoilers for the plot of the book, so if you plan to read the book (which I highly recommend), I suggest not reading this write-up.

I picked up Every Last One pretty much by random. Its author, Anna Quindlen, has a new book out that I wanted to read (it’s called, Write For Your Life), and while I was waiting for it to become available in the library, I thought I would acquaint myself with her writing, as I haven’t read any of her books.

It turned out to be such a happy accident. Every Last One has blown me away.

The book is about a suburban mom, Mary Beth, who is married to Glen and has three teenage kids — Ruby, who is going to start her senior year in high school, and a younger set of twins, Alex and Max, who are just wrapping up middle school. Glen and Mary Beth are well-liked and respected members of the close-knit community in which they live — he is an ophthalmologist, and she has her own small landscaping business. The first part of the book captures the typical everyday details of Mary Beth’s life, which, at this stage, are mostly centered on their three children. They have widely different personalities, and while she and Glen are confronted with the usual challenges of raising three teenage kids — including tantrums, mood swings, lack of communication, the occasional rudeness, bickering, and even outright rebellion at times — they are, by and large, a happy family, who hang out, go for trips, eat dinner together, throw parties, and generally, do all the things that normal, stable families do. All of these everyday events are captured in so much detail and so authentically and vividly that I could fully relate to Mary Beth as she navigates the individual challenges of parenting each of her three kids with their distinct personalities.

Halfway through the book, there is a complete shift. Mary Beth’s family is massacred by an unhinged ex-boyfriend of Ruby’s, who was very close to the whole family and felt deeply betrayed by all of them when Ruby broke up with him. One night, after a New Year Eve’s party, he comes to the house and strangles Ruby, stabs Max and Glen to death, and also stabs Mary Beth before killing himself. Mary Beth somehow survives the stabbing, and her son Alex was thankfully away on a ski trip with a friend, else he would have been killed too. All of a sudden, Mary Beth’s full, happy family no longer exists — there is only her and Alex left. The rest of her family is gone, permanently erased.

This turn of events happens so abruptly that it comes as a completely shock. I felt like I had personally been sucker-punched.

How can you cope with this kind of tragedy? How do you carry on living when most of your immediate family is suddenly gone and they are never coming back? How do you make yourself get up every morning and live through the day? And how do you make yourself do this every day?

In Mary Beth’s words:

It was not so much that I wanted to die; it was just that I could not bear the incessant feeling of being alive.

The rest of the book is focused on how Mary Beth manages to carry on living. And the only reason she has for even trying to do so is Alex. She is still a mother, and she is the only family member Alex has left, so she has to force herself to continue to live without falling apart, to ensure that he has a home and a parent. The initial numbness and shock that Mary Beth feels after she has recovered at the hospital give way to an existence in which a small part of her gradually tries to resume functioning as a normal human being in society — buying groceries, exchanging pleasantries, making small talk, attending Alex’s soccer matches, and so on — while the rest of her continues to exist in a fog. Like this:

I have two selves now, the one that goes out in the world and says what sound like the right things and nods and listens and even sometimes smiles, and the real woman, who watches her in wonder, who is nothing but a wound, a wound that will not stop throbbing except when it is anesthetized.

While there is an immediate outpouring of sympathy from everyone in the community, what really sustains Mary Beth is the steadfast support of her longtime friends and extended family members, many of whom become much closer to her than they had been before. The book closes at the end of the first year after her loss, with Mary Beth still shell-shocked but in a more stable place, settling in a new home where Alex is able to have his friends over, starting to take on some small landscaping jobs, and even being able to host a Thanksgiving dinner for all the friends and family who have provided her with their steadfast support, help, and love.

She is also able to sometimes experience moments like these:

You can’t plan them, although I suppose those people who meditate and practice yoga think you can, but there are those moments when we experience physical happiness despite ourselves, before our minds remind us of the reasons we shouldn’t. A slight breeze, a warming sun, a little bird music: Your senses say something before your good sense says something different. If only we could be creatures of the body more often.

The book ends with Mary Beth telling her mother, in response to the question of how she is holding up, that she is trying. She is trying every day. She is trying not just for Alex, but also for Ruby, Max, and Glen. It’s all she knows how to do now. This is her life. She is trying.

I found the portrayal of Mary Beth’s grief so completely authentic, so palpably real, that it was hard to believe that it was written by someone who has not personally experienced what it feels like — suddenly and irrevocably losing an immediate member of your family without whom you don’t know how to live. I know that this is what writers do all the time — imagine characters and their feelings and emotions. But I did not think it was possible for anyone to imagine what this kind of deep-seated grief — complete and utter despair, barely living, just going through the motions — feels like and to be able to capture it to a tee.

I am absolutely and completely awed by the power of fiction, and by the amazing talent of Anna Quindlen to be able to capture so vividly the depths of a despair she has not personally experienced. (She acknowledges this in an interview that is reprinted at the end of the book.)

I am almost afraid to read any of her other books now in case it brings her down from the pedestal I have placed her on.

I did, however, go back and reread Every Last One as soon as I finished it. I found it just as heart-wrenching as the first time I read it.

Every Last One
Author: Anna Quindlen
Publisher: ‎ Random House
Publication Date: April 2010

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“This Time Tomorrow” by Emma Straub

This book is more of a tribute to the author’s father than a novel as such. Although it does have a story, one involving time-travel, no less! This might seem like a strange combination, but it works. This Time Tomorrow may not be a book that you pick up for “entertainment,” but it is sweet and wise and poignant. I was glad to have read it.

First, some context. I was in Brooklyn recently and came across the bookstore, “Books Are Magic,” which I found out was owned by Emma Straub. While I was familiar with her name, I had not read any of her books. It was only after visiting the bookstore did I learn that she was the daughter of the author, Peter Straub, a prolific writer of horror and supernatural fiction, who had just died. I had not read any of his books either, but I was awed by this father-daughter connection. She had not just inherited her father’s literary talents but had also been so inspired by her father’s career as a novelist that she had chosen to follow the same path. That was amazing, especially because it is not that common in the literary world — most writers’ kids do not become writers themselves.

This Time Tomorrow is Emma Straub’s most recent book, and it is focused on the relationship between a father, who is also a writer, and his adult daughter. The parallels between the book and the real-life relationship between the author and her father are self-evident, and they reflect the deep love that the two shared. I could not read the book without always seeing the author, Emma Straub, in the protagonist, and her father, Peter Straub, in the protagonist’s father.

The protagonist of This Time Tomorrow is Alice, a 40-year-old woman, who is single, independent, has a good job, and a lifestyle she enjoys – except for the fact that her father, Leonard, is in the hospital and is slowly dying. Leonard is a writer, and he has authored a time-travel novel which has become wildly successful, with movie and TV adaptations galore. Thus, there were never any financial difficulties for Alice growing up, and apart from her mother leaving them, she had no real issues. She was always extremely close to her father, which is why seeing him now hovering on the brink of death is devastating to her.

On the night of her 40th birthday, after celebrating with her best friend at a bar, Alice happens to go to her father’s house instead of going home as it is closer and she is too drunk to take the subway home. She doesn’t have a key to the house, so she takes refuge in the garden shed, falls asleep, and wakes up on the eve of her sixteenth birthday! It turns out that the garden shed has a portal to time-travel which is only active between 3 to 4 in the middle of the night, and she happened to be there at that time, which is why she time-traveled. While she cannot believe that this is something that can actually happen in real life rather than just in the time-travel fiction that authors like her father wrote, she is thrilled to be back at a time when her father is alive and well. They spend a wonderful day together, and she has the trippy 16th birthday party at night with her high-school friends that she remembers, only this time she ends up sleeping with her high-school crush which she didn’t do when she was actually 16. When she falls asleep and wakes up, she is back to her current 40-year-old self, only this time, she is now married to that high-school crush and has two kids!

But her father, sadly, is still ailing and still in the hospital.

When she had time-traveled to when she was 16, she confided what had happened to her father, and he told her about the time-travel portal in the garden shed. (It turns out that he had been using it too, to keep returning to the day she was born. Apparently, it can only take you back to the one most momentous day of your past.) Now that she knows how to get back to that day of her 16th birthday, she time-travels again, this time with a view to persuading her father to eat healthier and quit smoking, hoping that he is not sick and dying when she is 40. That doesn’t quite work – her father is still sick when she returns to her 40-year-old self – but now she is in the version of her life where he has remarried a nice woman, Deborah, who is helping to take care of him.

Alice does the time-travel a couple of more times before realizing that you can’t always go back and change something in your past to create a desired outcome in your present, and that while the consequences of actions do create a ripple effect, they cannot be guided, let alone predicted. There will always be unintended consequences to every action. She eventually stops trying to get back to when she was 16 and just stays in one of the versions that she comes to as a 40-year-old, one in which her father is still dying, but at home rather than in a hospital. He has still remarried Deborah, who is with him till the end and who is there to work with Alice on the funeral arrangements after his death. Alice is still single in this version of her life, but she has a better job and a better apartment.

The essence of This Time Tomorrow was not really time-travel but rather, the love between a father and a daughter. The time-travel was certainly an innovative way of capturing it, and along the way, it does provide some insights on philosophical questions like to what extent we can control our lives, whether we can hold on to something we love or is it better to let it go, and above all, the importance of cherishing what we have when we have it as you never know how long it will last. But ultimately, I saw the book as an ode to Emma Straub’s love for her father, Peter Straub. I can’t think of a better way for a writer to honor her father, who was also a writer.  

This Time Tomorrow
Author: Emma Straub
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: May 2022

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Hidden Pictures” by Jason Rekulak

I have been having trouble getting into a book lately, so I was thrilled to find that once I started reading Hidden Pictures, it hooked me enough to want to continue reading until I finished it. I had not heard of its author before, and while I picked up the book on the basis of a recommendation in a magazine, I didn’t have high hopes, given the number of books I had picked up recently that I couldn’t read past a few pages.

The book is a ghost story, which, in itself, is so unusual. How many authors write ghost stories these days? There is Stephen King, of course, the master of horror and supernatural thrillers, but I have not really been a fan. (I did read The Outsider, which I enjoyed, but not enough to make me want to read more of his books.) Apart from him, however, no contemporary writer comes to mind.

The plot of Hidden Pictures, in brief — A young woman, Mallory Quinn, fresh out of rehab for drug addiction, is hired as a babysitter by a wealthy couple, Caroline and Ted, for their five-year-old son, Teddy. She moves in with them, staying in a small cottage in their property. All is hunky dory in the beginning – Teddy loves her, Caroline and Ted are warm and solicitous, and the neighborhood where they live is beautiful. The job seems like a godsend to Mallory, who has been through severe trauma and loss, culminating in substance abuse. She is looking to put the past behind her and make a fresh start.

Teddy loves to draw, and while his pictures are typical of what little kids make – with stick figures – in the beginning, they soon become more intricate and more realistic, going far beyond even what most adults could draw. And not only that, the pictures start getting more gruesome, showing a woman with a child being murdered and buried in the ground by a man. Teddy claims that he has an imaginary friend called Anya who is making him draw these pictures; and Mallory – who is really freaking out by now – suspects that the cottage she is living in is haunted by a woman who died there in mysterious circumstances decades ago and is now using Teddy to communicate what happened to her. She tries to share her fears with Caroline and Ted, but they are atheists and do not take her seriously. In normal circumstances, Mallory would have left, but she really needs this job. She also has become as attached to Teddy as he is to her.

There is, of course, no rational explanation for the pictures, and in an attempt to get Teddy to stop drawing them, Caroline gets him an iPad, leaving him too addicted to playing the game, “Angry Birds,” rather than drawing. When this happens, the “ghost” – because there is no doubt now that it is a ghost – starts channeling itself through Mallory and uses her as the medium for continuing to draw the pictures.

At this point, the book becomes totally riveting and it is hard to put it down until you get to know how the story is resolved. There is a plot twist at the end that I did not see coming, and it is to the credit of the author that it is believable rather than ludicrous. The book is also well written – not a literary masterpiece by any means, but at the same time, not pedestrian.

And then, of course, there are the pictures that the ghost draws, first through Teddy and then through Mallory. They are all shown, making the story a lot more real, rather than leaving it up to our imaginations. And they are gorgeous.

All in all, I really liked this book. It was a quick and enjoyable read and thankfully broke the not-finding-anything-good-to-read jinx for me.

Hidden Pictures
Author: Jason Rekulak
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: May 2022

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Ink Black Heart” by Robert Galbraith

This is the sixth book in the Cormoran Strike series by J.K. Rowling, who is writing these novels under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. I absolutely love the books in this series and getting a new one to read is such a treat for me. I pre-order them as soon as they are announced and spend the days leading up to the launch by re-reading the preceding book (or books) in the series in order to “get ready” for the new one, so I can pick up where the last one ended. For The Ink Black Heart, I re-read the last book, Troubled Blood and thoroughly enjoyed it. There is so much detail in the books that it almost feels new every time I read it.

The series is centered around a detective agency started by Cormoran Strike, an ex-military man who was forced to leave the army when he was injured in a blast and had to have his leg amputated. The other main character is Robin Ellacott, who starts in the first book of the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, as a temp for the agency and has worked her way up to now being Strike’s business partner in the agency. (I provided a more detailed overview of the series, as well as on the relationship between Strike and Robin, in my write-up of the fourth book, Lethal White.)

While the agency is typically working on multiple cases, each book in the series focuses on one main case. The new book, The Ink Black Heart, takes place in 2016 and the crime it is centered on is very contemporary, involving YouTube, Twitter, Netflix, gaming, and online stalking and trolling. The case involves finding the identity of an online persona called Anomie who has murdered the main creator, Edie, of a popular YouTube cartoon called “The Ink Heart Place,” which has been optioned by Netflix to become a show. Anomie had created an online game inspired by the cartoon, but it was disparaged by Edie, making Anomie furious and causing him/her (Anomie’s identity remains unknown till the end of the book) to disparage and humiliate Edie at every opportunity, both in the game — which has attracted a huge fan following of its own — as well as on Twitter. This vendetta is sustained for all the three or so years between the launch of the game and the murder, not just by Anomie, by many additional characters in the game who also vilify Edie, including some from a right-wing hate group. There are nasty tweets galore, as well as pages upon pages of in-game conversations between the characters, many of them running in parallel as “private channels” (a common feature in online games). This makes for an even lengthier book than is usual for this series — The Ink Black Heart is 1012 pages compared to the 927 pages of its predecessor, Troubled Blood.

While having such a lengthy book translates to more reading pleasure for anyone who loves these books (and is therefore welcomed!), it is likely to be considered as needlessly long by others. I can’t see this book being appreciated unless you are a diehard fan like me, and even I skipped most of the in-game conversations between the players. I did, however, have to plod through many of the tweets as they seemed to be important to the plot point, even though they were horribly vile and offensive, as many abusive tweets tend to be. There were too many characters in the story making for too many potential suspects, and there were even more characters online in the game and on Twitter, with no way of knowing which online user was which character in real life.

All in all, I found it quite confusing, and I am happy that I have a copy of the book to re-read to make it clearer. I will also likely enjoy the book better on subsequent re-reads, as knowing the solution to the central mystery will allow me to focus on the sheer mastery of the writing, the incredible level of detail, and the characters of Strike and Robin that are fleshed out so vividly that I feel like I know them personally.

Talking of Strike and Robin, their relationship — which the whole series revolves around — hardly progresses in this book. Of course, it cannot be successfully resolved until the last book in the series — and the fact that it is left hanging at least assures fans like me that there are more books coming! — but it was, nevertheless, a little disappointing. Strike is hardly any kind of romantic figure — he is curmudgeonly, out of shape, smokes endlessly, and is always eating burgers and chips and drinking endless pints of beer or lager. (Towards the end of this book, he is forced to be hospitalized as his amputated stump is acting up, and he might start taking better care of his health in the next book.) Robin, on the other hand, who is more conventionally pretty, does not find Strike “remotely sexy,” as she confided to a friend.

Yet, a high level of character and integrity, along with a passion for detective work, is what draws them to each other and deepens their mutual respect and admiration. They care deeply for each other and have acknowledged (this was in the last book) that they are each other’s best friends. They have built up a great business partnership, which they understandably do not wish to jeopardize by crossing the boundary to a romantic relationship. So they continue to suppress the mutual attraction they feel for each other. I find this relationship — and how well it is built up over the course of the series — to be one of the best parts of the books.

I consider myself lucky that I get so much happiness from reading these books and that J.K. Rowling is still writing them.

The Ink Black Heart
Author: Robert Galbraith (Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: August 2022

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Tracy Flick Can’t Win” by Tom Perrotta

This is a follow-up to the book Election which was made into a very successful movie in which the character of Tracy Flick was immortalized by Reese Witherspoon. While I haven’t read that book, I have read some of Tom Perrotta’s other books (Little Children and The Leftovers) and found them well-written, very enjoyable, and easy to get into and read. (The latter is especially important for me as I grow older, as I don’t have the patience to plod through a book in the hope that it will soon get interesting – it has to grip me right away!)

Track Flick from Election – in that book, she was in high school competing in the election to be School President – is now in her 40s and an Assistant Principal in a high school where the Principal has announced his retirement, and Tracy, being as driven as ever, wants the job. Of course, her ambitions are much more modest now than when she was in high school. At that time, her ambition was to be the President of US – the first woman President – and it was something she seriously aspired to and was well on track for – studying at Georgetown (on a full scholarship), getting an internship in DC – until she had to move back home to care for her mother, who was very ill. She had to give up on those aspirations, but now, given how qualified she is – she has been the Assistant Principal for 20 years and has been doing a stellar job of it – is it too much to ask for that she succeed as the Principal?

But of course, these things are never easy, as the decision has to be made by a Search Committee, the position has to be advertised, and other candidates have to be interviewed. This is the plot of the book, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, with the backdrop being Tracy’s ambition to be the Principal. In addition to Tracy, there are several additional characters that are involved, including the other members of the Search Committee and some of the alumni of the school. One of the key people on the Committee is the head of the Parent Association, a wealthy ex-techie from Silicon Valley who has returned with his family to settle in the town he grew up in and has two kids who are in the high school. He wants to establish a Hall of Fame in the school to inspire the students, and in addition to a new principal, the search is also on for the inaugural inductees into this new Hall of Fame, which is where the alumni who are under consideration come in.

Thus, there are several characters in the book, and the story is told from the point of view of many of these people, often in first person. In addition to all the grown-ups and their partners and significant others, we also get into the minds of the two students who are on the Search Committee. All in all, the story includes a diverse cast of characters including a non-binary person (who is the love interest of one of the students), an Internet personality (who is the love interest of the other student), an ex-NBA player (who is the main star being inducted into the Hall of Fame), and many more. The chapters are short and fast-paced, dipping into the minds of each of these characters and then moving on to another characters. The book never drags or gets boring.

Overall, I found Tracy Flick Can’t Win a very enjoyable read and can well see Reese Witherspoon returning to play the character of Tracy Flick once again in the movie adaptation of the book. Just like its predecessor, I think it would be a huge hit.

Tracy Flick Can’t Win
Author: Tom Perrotta
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: June 2022

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Sorrow and Bliss” by Meg Mason

I picked up this book on my recent trip to London. I was specifically looking for current bestselling British authors that we don’t hear much about in the US, and I saw Sorrow and Bliss displayed prominently in several London bookstores. I typically do not buy books without reading them first (I get them from the library and buy only those books I really like), but I took a chance on this one. Not only was it heralded as the “Novel of the Year” by several leading British newspapers like the Guardian and the Sunday Times, it also had a blurb on the back cover by Ann Patchett, whose work I greatly admire. That was what “clinched the deal” for me.

I am so glad that I found this book – it was amazing. However, the brilliance is not evident right at the start, such as, for instance, in a runway hit like The Girl on the Train (by Paula Hawkins, another contemporary British author), which was a book that was immediately gripping. In fact, not only does Sorrow and Bliss not draw you in right away, the languid pace at which it starts is the same pace that is maintained throughout the book, and it is only when you get to the end that you can appreciate what a masterful creation it was that you have just had the privilege of consuming.

At its heart, Sorrow and Bliss is a story about mental illness. It is told in first person from the perspective of a woman, Martha, who suffers from a mental condition that impacts everything she does and all of her relationships, right from when she was a teenager. On the surface, she would seem to have everything that anyone could wish for to be happy – she is beautiful and talented, she has a loving extended family included a sister with whom she is very close and a father who cares deeply about her, and above all, she has a husband who has loved her since she was 17 and continues to be steadfast in his love and support for her despite her depression and frequent emotional breakdowns. But her mental illness – which it turns out, has been passed on her by her mother – makes it impossible for her to live a normal life, hold down a job, have friends, socialize, etc., and almost ends up destroying her relationships with the two people closest to her, her husband, Patrick, and her sister, Ingrid.

If you don’t suffer from a mental illness, it is almost impossible to “get” it, to understand how a person who has mental health issues feels and behaves. But Sorrow and Bliss was able to do this for me – I was able to get into Martha’s head and feel what she feels, experience her grief and helplessness as she inadvertently pushes away the people closest to her almost to the breaking point, and understand what she means when she says to a therapist that she would like to simply “not exist” rather than just kill herself  (which is the ultimate fear we have for those have a mental illness). In fact, the writing is so visceral in capturing what goes on in Martha’s head that I could hardly believe that this was a made-up story rather than a first-person account of someone who has lived with mental illness for an extended period of time. How else can you even conceive of someone who says they don’t know “how to live” in the world?

While I think that all of us are somewhere on the spectrum when it comes to mental health, it is rare to be able to get inside the skin of someone at the extreme end of the spectrum and feel their pain, their helplessness, their frustration, and their despair. Sorrow and Bliss is not an easy read, but I found it gut-wrenchingly emotional, poignant, hopeful, and in the end, deeply satisfying. I also think it has enhanced my understanding, not just of people with severe mental illness, but also of human behavior as a whole and the extent to which our lives are shaped by the chemistry of our brains.

Sorrow and Bliss
Author: Meg Mason
Publisher and Publication Date of this UK edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, April 2022
Original Publisher and Publication Date: HarperCollins Publishers Australia, 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Dark Places” by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn is best known for her best-selling novel, Gone Girl, which was subsequently made into a very successful movie with top-of-the-line stars including Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck, and Neil Patrick Harris. I loved that book when it came out in 2012 and also enjoyed it thoroughly when I re-read it a few years ago. Which is why when I was unable to find something compelling to read for a few months, I turned to one of her earlier books, Dark Places, which was published in 2009. While I have already read that book — I bought it shortly after I was mesmerized by Gone Girl — it’s been a while and I had little to no recollection of the plot. So re-reading it would be almost like reading a new book by Gillian Flynn, with an assurance that I would enjoy it. Because what I do remember about Dark Places when I read it the first time is that I really liked it.

The plot in brief — The protagonist is a woman called Libby Day, who suffered a brutal tragedy when she was a kid. Her family grew up dirt poor in Kansas, and one night, her mother and her two older sisters were massacred. Her brother, Ben, who was 15 at that time, was arrested for the murders, partially based on Libby’s testimony — even though she was only 7 years old then and very suggestible – and partly because of the lack of any other suspects or any other evidence pointing to anyone else. He was convicted and is now in prison. Libby was quite close to Ben when she was a kid, but she severed ties with him when he was arrested and is no longer in touch. This changes once she gets commissioned by the members of a “Kill Club” looking into the murders, who are convinced that Ben is innocent. Libby needs the money and starts looking at the case again, chasing down all the people who were involved. This, eventually, leads to the truth coming out about what really happened that day.

The story is told in two alternating timelines, one set in the present day and told from Libby’s first-person point of view, and the other on the day of the murders, told from a third person point of view at different times that day, following both Ben as well as his mother, Patty. It gives you a sense of how that day unfolds, starting from the morning to late at night when the murders happened. The suspense is maintained throughout, and you get to know what really happened that day only at the end of the book.

Meanwhile, in the current timeline, you get to be inside Libby’s head and feel the sense of hopelessness and depression that she lives with every day. She has never really recovered from the trauma of what happened to her and her family, and it is only the money that she is offered for looking at the murders again — which she needs, as she has come to the end of the charitable contributions that poured in to help her as the only survivor of the massacres — that pulls her up and forces her to function. As she starts to dig deeper into the events of that day and start hunting down the different people involved, she begins to get more interested in finding out the truth for its own sake rather than just for the money she is being offered to look into it. She also reconnects with Ben and even makes another friend, of sorts, so that, in addition to the murder mystery being solved at the end, there is some kind of resolution to her life as well.

I think what elevates a book like this from a run-of-the-mill potboiler is the quality of the writing. I found it amazing and so authentic, all the way from capturing the details of life in poor farming communities in Kansas to the breakdown of Libby’s life after the murders and the permanent damage it has done to her psyche. You can get a sense of this from the starting lines of the book itself, which is from Libby’s first-person point of view in the present moment:

I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. Little Orphan Libby grew up sullen and boneless, shuffled around a group of lesser relatives – second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends – stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all across Kansas.

Such is the quality of the writing throughout the book – so compelling, so gripping, that you don’t want to miss a word.

What a gift! And how lucky we are to be able to enjoy the fruits of it.

Gillian Flynn deserves every bit of the success that has come to her so far.

Dark Places
Author: Gillian Flynn
Publisher: ‎ Crown Publishing Group (Random House)
Publication Date: May 2009 (1st edition)

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles

I had really liked one of Amor Towles earlier books, The Rules of Civility, so, of course, I had to check out his latest book, The Lincoln Highway, which has just been published. At close to 600 pages, the length of it is somewhat daunting, but of course, if a book is good, the length of the book is hardly an issue. (In fact, if I love a book, I wish it would go on forever!). While The Lincoln Highway did not fall in the “I wish it would go on forever” category for me, I found it a good read once I was a few chapters into it.

The story takes place in 1954 during the course of exactly 10 days with the setting being the Lincoln Highway, one of the earliest transcontinental highway routes in the US that runs coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The story centers around four main characters, three of whom were inmates together at a “work farm” – a juvenile detention facility of sorts – for various transgressions such as theft, arson, and involuntary manslaughter. There is Emmett, who has just been released after serving his sentence; and Woolly and Duchess, who still have some months left to serve on the work farm but have escaped by hiding in the trunk of the car that was being used to bring Emmett back to his home in Nebraska. The fourth main character in the novel is Emmett’s precocious younger brother, Billy. The original plan was for Emmett and Billy to drive to San Francisco via the Lincoln Highway – which runs quite close to their town in Nebraska – but thanks to Woolly and Duchess, they are forced to go to New York, which is at the other end of the Lincoln Highway.

Each of the ten days over the course of which the story unfolds is filled with lots of action and adventure happening to each of these four main characters, and it is told from their individual points of view. Some of these events include an impromptu visit to an orphanage, hitching a ride in a freight car, being almost robbed by a pastor, being rescued by a black man named Ulysses, who — reminiscent of the legendary Greek God, Ulysses – throws said pastor out of the train, spending some time at a homeless encampment in New York, going to the 44th floor of the Empire State building to find a famous author and actually meeting him there, an eventful visit to the circus, a paint job on Emmett’s car to prevent it from being detected by the police, breaking open a safe, and many, many more.  

In addition to the four main characters, there are some other folks who make a sporadic appearance in the book, and one of these secondary characters is Sally, who is the daughter of Emmett’s neighbor and is almost like a mother figure to Billy. (His own mother left home when he was little more than a baby, and his father has just died.) Not only does she cook and clean and keep house for her father, she also does the same for Billy and Emmett as often as she can, and I found the chapters told from her point of view – capturing her thoughts — the most poignant in the book. In particular, the section quoted below was so profound, I wanted to write this review mostly so that I could capture it. It is about why she still continues to make strawberry preserves from scratch when one can just go to the store and buy a bottle of jam:

So yes, the making of strawberry preserves is time-consuming, old-fashioned, and unnecessary.

Then, why, you might ask, do I bother to do it?

I do it because it’s time-consuming.


I do it because it’s old-fashioned.


I do it because it’s unnecessary.

For what is kindness but the performance of an act that is both beneficial to another and unrequired? There is no kindness in paying a bill. There is no kindness in getting up at dawn to slop the pigs, or milk the cows, or gather the eggs from the henhouse. For that matter, there is no kindness in making dinner, or in cleaning the kitchen after your father heads upstairs without so much as a word of thanks.

There is no kindness in latching the doors and turning out the lights, or in picking up the clothes from the bathroom floor in order to put them in the hamper. There is no kindness in taking care of a household because your older sister had the good sense to get herself married and move to Pensacola.

Nope, I said to myself while climbing into bed and switching off the light, there is no kindness in any of that.

For kindness begins where necessity ends.

I had never thought of this connection between kindness and unnecessariness before, but it is so true.

To me, the book was worth the read for this insight alone.

The Lincoln Highway
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: ‎ Viking
Publication Date: October 2021

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Early Morning Riser” by Katherine Heiny

I almost gave up on Early Morning Riser after reading the first few chapters. Not because I disliked the book – on the contrary, it was very well written and quite charming, with a likable cast of characters – but only because it seemed to be somewhat meandering, and I wasn’t sure where it was headed. But boy, am I glad I stuck with it, as it turned out to be one of the most heartwarming books I have read.

Set in a small town, Boyne City, in Michigan, the protagonist is a young woman, Jane, who has just moved into town to take up the position of a second-grade teacher at the local elementary school. She meets and falls for Duncan, a woodworker who is also somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy and does a lot of handyman-type of work for many of the folks in the town. Duncan’s only employee is Jimmy, who is developmentally slow, and lives with his mother. To Duncan, Jimmy is almost like family, and he feels very protective towards him, as do most of the residents in this close-knit community. Most of the early chapters in the book are focused on Jane settling into Boyne City, her work in the school, the students in her class, her growing friendship with another teacher, her relationship with Duncan, her getting to know Duncan’s ex-wife with whom he is still friends, and overall, the many aspects of life in a small town.

It was all nice and sweet, and I was coasting along, when all of a sudden, the story took such a dramatic turn that I was almost shell-shocked. It happened on the evening before Jane’s wedding — not to Duncan, as they had both moved on to other partners – but to another man. Her mother had come down for the wedding, and Jane had always found her rather trying. Adding to Jane’s irritation that evening were the new shoes she was wearing for the rehearsal dinner – she had blisters all over her feet and could hardly walk. But she ended up having to walk home with her mother, with the added annoyance of being accompanied by Jimmy’s mother, who was rather talkative. When they reached her house, Jane couldn’t wait to temporarily get rid of both of them and take her shoes off. So she thrust her car keys to her mother and told her to go and drop Jimmy’s mother off. This impromptu errand she sends her mother on has devastating consequences – her mother, not being familiar with the place, gets into a car crash in which Jimmy’s mother is killed. (Jane’s mother, herself, survives the crash with a broken arm.)

While accidents, even fatal ones, happen often in books, movies, and sadly, even in real life, this accident in Early Morning Riser came as a real shock. Imagine the guilt that Jane feels! While she was not driving the car herself, she had asked her mother to do it, without thinking that her mother was new to the place and may have a problem with directions. Without a doubt, Jimmy’s mother’s death was her fault. Who would look after Jimmy now? Who would he live with? How would he manage alone?

This, then, is the main plot point of the story. It happens so suddenly that you don’t see it coming. Just as real life can change in an instant, so does life change for Jane in Early Morning Riser in the course of a single page. One thoughtless action can change the trajectory of our lives forever. Jane is now permanently responsible for Jimmy, and while she did let him live alone for a few months, that changed when he was swindled out of his house and savings by a conman. That’s when Duncan and Jane stepped in, got married, and brought Jimmy to live with them. They go on to have two daughters, and while it is not always easy for Jane to have Jimmy continue to live with them, she eventually realizes that he is an inseparable part of their family.

In addition to being such a heartrending and heartwarming story, Early Morning Riser was sprinkled with so many wise and wry insights and observations that I was left completely awestruck at the author’s talent. Here are two of my top ones.

This is when Jane and Duncan have become a couple again:

Oh, the joy of a shared life! The joy is not—as many people believe—building a future with someone, or opening your heart to another human being, or even the ability to gift each other money with limited tax consequences. The joy is in the dailiness. The joy is having someone who will stop you from hitting the snooze button on the alarm endlessly. The joy is the smell of someone else's cooking. The joy is knowing you can call someone and ask him to pick up a gallon of milk on his way over. The joy is having someone to watch Kitchen Nightmares with, because it is really no good when you watch it by yourself. The joy is hoping (however unrealistically) that someone else will unload the dishwasher. The joy is having someone listen to the weird cough your car has developed and reassure you that it doesn’t sound expensive. The joy is saying how much you want a glass of wine and having someone tell you, "Go ahead, you deserve it!"

This is after Jane and Duncan have married and are thinking about having a baby:

Jane had a theory that people spent too long deliberating small decisions and not enough time considering big, important ones. How many days—surely it added up to days—had she agonized over whether to cut bangs? How many hours had she spent debating the merits of wood versus laminate flooring? How many minutes of her life had she given to working out the number of calories in a salad? How many times had she visited the thrift store, looking for the perfect black cashmere sweater? (The answer: a lot. Cashmere isn’t often donated.) And yet, people get pregnant all the time just because one person was too lazy to get out of bed and hunt up a condom, people bought houses after a single viewing, people chose colleges based on whether the cafeteria served caffeinated beverages, people sent their mothers to drive other people’s mothers home without thinking about it at all.

And while there were so many parts of the story that were just plain heartrending, there were two that really stood out for me. The first was when Jane and Duncan visit Jane’s mother for Christmas. This is when Jimmy is living with them, and Jane is pregnant with her first child. Jane’s mother sends Duncan off to do some chores around the house, she asks Jane to go and decorate the Christmas tree in the family room, and she asks Jimmy if he would like to help her frost sugar cookies in the kitchen. While they are in the kitchen, she and Jimmy have a long chat about the baby that is coming, and she assuages Jimmy’s fear that he will drop the baby, advising him on how to hold it:

“Oh, you don’t need to worry.” Jane’s mother’s tone was certain, authoritative. “Anytime you want to hold the baby, Jane will set you up on the sofa with pillows propped all around you and put the baby in your arms. You won’t possibly be able to drop the baby because of all the pillows, you see. Lots of people hold babies that way. I’ll bet you’ll be a great help to Jane.”

The conversation continues with her giving Jimmy more reassurances and advice about how to help Jane with the baby, including telling him a secret about babies—“…if you hold them right next to your chest so they can feel your heart beating, they’ll sleep much longer than they do in a crib”—and that Jane would tell him—“Oh, Jimmy, I would be lost without you.”

“I sure would like that,” Jimmy sounded wistful. “Do you really think it will happen?”

“Without a doubt,” Jane’s mother said.

In the family room, Jane nodded in agreement. She would make certain of it.

I was so touched by this conversation. Jane’s mother had clearly contrived to get Jimmy alone in order to have this conversation with him. She might often be trying and annoying to Jane, but her essential humanity and goodness shine through with this.

And at the end of the book, at a family outing to a public beach they have all gone to, Jane’s younger daughter, Patrice, is finally able to do a cartwheel, which she has been trying to do for months now — like her older sister — but hadn’t quite succeeded.

Patrice turned another cartwheel, her round face flushed, her hair a glinting auburn tangle.

“Did you see, Mommy?” she yelled. “Did you see me?”

“Yes!” Jane answered. “I saw you!”

Patrice shaded her eyes. “Did you see, Jimmy?”

“I sure did!” Jimmy called from behind Jane, and Jane turned to look at him.

He was smiling proudly, his face as sweet and open as a sugar cookie. He was so happy for Patrice, so happy for all of them, so delighted by their accomplishments. Could anyone else, ever, be so devoted and selfless? Maybe Jane was wrong: maybe she had been wrong all these years. She’d spent so much time either feeling responsible for Jimmy or feeling sorry for him that she’s forgotten to love him.

I ended the book with a lump in my throat.

Early Morning Riser
Author: Katherine Heiny
Publisher: ‎ Knopf
Publication Date: April 2021

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“My Policeman” by Bethan Roberts

It’s been a while since I read a book I savored so much that I didn’t want it to end.

I get a lot of book recommendations from Bookmarks magazine, some of which are contributed by other readers, and while I don’t exactly recall which recommendation led me to checking out My Policeman from the library, it certainly hit the mark. Not only for the depth of the story, but also for how beautifully it was written.

Set in Brighton, a seaside town in England, the story alternates between two time periods, the 1950s and the 1990s. It tells the story of Marion, who is desperately in love with Tom, the brother of her best friend. It also tells the story of Patrick, a gay man who falls desperately in love with the same Tom that Marion loves. And Tom, it turns out, is also gay, and this is something he comes to realize because of his intense attraction to Patrick and the consummation of their relationship.

This love triangle is set in the 1950s, which was a time when homosexuality was considered both immoral as well as illegal, so most gay men (and women) were extremely careful not to publicize their sexual preferences. In the case of Patrick, while he couldn’t help writing about the object of his love in his journal, he referred to him as “my policeman,” which is what Tom did for a living. Tom, on his part, strove to maintain the veneer of respectability by marrying Marion, whom he was fond of, while still meeting Patrick in secret. And Marion was so much in love with Tom that she was thrilled to be marrying him, even though there were signs that Tom was not completely like the other men her friends were marrying. And she sticks with the marriage even after realizing that Tom is a homosexual and is having a relationship with Patrick.

Forty or so odd years later in the 1990s, Marion and Tom are still married, but Patrick has had a severe stroke and Marion, against Tom’s wishes, brings him home and nurses him, almost devotedly. Why she does this and why she has stuck with Tom despite knowing of his homosexuality is something we get to know only towards the end of the book.

Overall, it is a very sad story, very poignantly told. The blurb on the cover of the book called it “an exquisitely told, tragic tale of thwarted love,” and while I usually find such blurbs to be quite unbelievable and over-the-top, I found it accurate to the tee for My Policeman.  I can’t think of a better word than “exquisite” for this book and how it is written.

My Policeman
Author: Bethan Roberts
UK Publisher: Chatto Windus
UK Publication Date: August 2012
US Publisher: Penguin Books
US Publication Date: August 2021

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Kingdom” by Jo Nesbø

Jo Nesbø is a well-known and very popular writer of crime thrillers, and while his name was familiar to me, I had never read any of his books. On a recent visit to the library, I checked out several current bestsellers that were vaguely familiar to me, in the hope that I might at least like one of them sufficiently enough to read through. (This is something I have been doing a lot lately.) Of the five or so bestsellers I picked up this time around, The Kingdom by Jo Nesbø was the last one I attempted to read, after giving up on the others. At over 550 pages, the length of the book was daunting, but a thriller is usually easy to read, and I was prepared to give up on the book the moment it started to get uninteresting.

Surprisingly, that never happened with The Kingdom – it held my attention all the way through. While I would not call it “unputdownable” – which is understandable given that it is not a mystery thriller – it did get quite addictive towards the end, and I actually went back to re-read the last few chapters again to soak in the atmosphere. And really, “soaking up the atmosphere” is a very apt way of describing the book as it provides such a vivid feel of the location where it is set – which is a quiet mountain town in Norway. The Kingdom is the story of two brothers, Roy and Carl, and the series of tragedies and deaths that they are associated with, starting from when they were in their teens up to the present moment, where they are in their mid-thirties. Twenty or so odd years ago, their parents were killed when driving a car that went out of control on a sharp bend and plunged down a mountainside close to where they lived. They still live there (it is “the kingdom” of the book title), and during the course of the story, there are two more accidents of exactly the same kind, causing others related to the brothers to also get killed. Were these accidents, or suicides, or had the cars been tampered with? And if so, then why?

Caught up in the intrigue are also several people in the town where they live, including ex-girlfriends, the sheriff, the mayor, the editor of the local paper, the doctor, and others who have a fraught relationship with the brothers. Also central to the story is Carl’s wife, Shannon, who is the architect of the hotel project he has come back to his hometown (after many years in the US and Canada) to pitch to the townsfolk, and she is very Howard-Roark-like towards her creation. (Howard Roark is the eponymous hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, an architect who is so obsessed with the purity of his architectural designs that he would rather destroy projects that are not true to his vision than let them be built.) An additional complication arises when Roy falls in love with Shannon, throwing a wrench in the close relationship between the brothers.

While it might seem like a lot is happening in The Kingdom, I actually found that the novel did not seem rushed in the least; rather, it was able to get into events in great depth and describe them in minute detail. It is also beautifully written, with lush descriptions of the Norwegian countryside and of the depth and complexity of Roy’s feelings, from whose point of view the story is narrated. Above all, I was blown away by the fact that I was reading an English translation of the book from its Norwegian original. I did not realize this originally and had to go back and recheck the cover page to determine that it was indeed a translation.

Reading The Kingdom does not want to make me rush out to read all the booksJo Nesbø has written so far, but it’s good to know that if I am ever in the mood for a beautifully written crime thriller, I know where to look.

The Kingdom
Author: Jo Nesbø
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: November 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V. E. Schwab

I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. It falls squarely in the Fantasy genre, which I have found is very difficult to pull off without seeming implausible, if not downright ludicrous. But in the case of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, the book was so well written and so masterfully put together that I almost forgot that what I was reading was purely a figment of the author’s imagination and could not happen in real life.

And what an imagination! A young girl, Adeline (she prefers the name, Addie), makes a deal with the devil to get out of a life situation abhorrent to her in exchange for living without ever being remembered. And she never gets old and never dies. It might not seem to be such a bad deal – after all, she is not actually invisible and all her human faculties are intact, so she can still enjoy all the things we humans enjoy. However, while she can be seen by other people, they forget her the moment she is out of their sight, which means that she has to keep getting acquainted with them over and over again and can never build any kind of relationship with anyone. She can also never have a home or a job or anything permanent for that very reason – all of these require some recognition, some continuity, something to build on. While the ability to not be remembered allows her to get enough of the basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter to survive every day – she still has these human needs – she has to repeat this every single day. For eternity.

The deal that she has made with the devil – who was a god that she had been warned not to pray to after dark, but which she did out of desperation – gives her the choice to opt at any time by surrendering her soul to him. But she is stubborn and refuses to do that. So she soldiers on, becoming more adept at figuring out how to handle her “curse” in order to be able to continue to have, at least, a decent, livable life. And given that it was 1714 when she made the deal and that it is 2014 when we meet her in the present, she has had three hundred years of experience and practice in living like this, and she has perfected it to almost an art. Along the way, she has taught herself to read, learnt multiple languages, traveled all over Europe and the US, lived through the French Revolution (she was born in France) and the World Wars, and met in person many of the greatest writers and artists of the last three centuries. Of course, no one remember hers, and her curse does not even allow a painting or a photograph of her to be captured.

Then something changes – because, of course, if it wouldn’t, there would be no story. In the present, in 2014, she unexpectedly meets one person, after three hundred years, who can remember her! Like everyone else who comes into contact with her, he does not forget her the moment she is out of sight. She can’t believe it — who is the person and how is it that he is immune to her curse?

This, then, is the plot of the story, and it is told by going back and forth between the past and the present. The past here is not just the time in 1714 when Addie made the Faustian bargain with the devil, but it traces her life across all the pivotal times in the three hundred years since then, showing not just how she was living with the curse at that time but also providing a window into what life was like in that era. The writing is so good that it never seems too fantastical or unbelievable. And despite the seeming impossibility of it given Addie’s curse, there is a rather haunting love story in the book as well. The devil, it turns out, is not as evil as he seemed.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I read something that transported me to another world that I know is impossible but was still so believable.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
Author: V. E. Schwab
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: October 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb

This was such a good book! It was published all the way back in 1992 and was highly acclaimed at that time — in addition to becoming a bestseller, it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Given how well-known it was, it is surprising to me that I hadn’t read it until now. It is exactly the kind of novel I best appreciate — where the focus is on the story, told without any literary flourishes. And the story is so powerful that the storytelling does not get in the way of the story. This book may not have won any literary awards for the masterful use of language, but boy, does it pack a punch.

The book is narrated in first person by the protagonist, Dolores Price, and charts her life all the way from adolescence to when she is an older adult. She comes from a broken home, and in addition to that trauma, she is raped as an adolescent. She turns to eating (a lot) as a coping mechanism, and by the time she reaches high school, she is over 250 pounds. Bullying in high school is pernicious even for regular kids, and with her weight, it is aggravated to the point of being unbearable. The situation only gets worse in college, which her mother forces her to enroll in and attend. Dolores almost ends up committing suicide next to a whale that has washed up on shore in Cape Code to die. (She feels a strange kinship with whales, and not just because of her size.)

As it turns out, she is saved and sent to a mental health facility, where she spends several years getting psychiatric treatment that turns out to be actually effective. She even loses all the extra weight that had defined her for so long. But it’s not that she’s completely cured of all her neuroses. Her psyche is still badly damaged and even though she is able to live a somewhat normal life — she finds a job, rents an apartment, and even gets married (for a while) — the scars of her trauma are still there, and drive her to do things and make decisions that are questionable. She continues to struggle, and so do we with her, thanks to the power of the writing. She does eventually persevere and find some peace and happiness, but it is a long ride. And throughout it all, what really sustains her are the strong bonds she makes with a few people in her life, most poignantly her friendship with a gay teacher she had in high school who she reconnects with as an adult, and whom she nurses when he is ill with AIDS.

She’s Come Undone is so beautifully written that you can viscerally feel every painful moment, every slight, every feeling of despair, every kindness, and every small triumph that Dolores experiences as if it were your own. It is so detailed that you feel like you have gone on the long journey of her life with her, every step of the way. And is so authentic that it is hard to believe that this is a work of fiction and not a memoir. In that respect, it reminded me of A Little Life, another book that I love. I am almost afraid to read another book by Wally Lamb, so that it doesn’t spoil She’s Come Undone for me.

She’s Come Undone
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: August 1992

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Squeeze Me” by Carl Hiaasen

It’s been a while since I read a book that was just plain laugh-out-loud funny. Which is why once I started reading “Squeeze Me,” I was having such a fun time that there was no question of not reading it all the way through. Set in Florida and published in 2020, the book is a thinly veiled parody of the Trump administration, Trump himself, the First Lady, his strident anti-immigration rhetoric and the resulting anti-immigration policies of his administration, and his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Throw in a sudden infestation of a large number of pythons who are capable of eating human beings and a fearless wildlife wrangler called in to deal with them – who also has a strong sense of justice – and we have the makings of a hilarious plot, which is further enhanced by Hiaasen’s witty, satirical, writing style.

The plot in brief without giving too much away – a rich, old lady, one of a posse of rich old ladies who are ardent supporters of the President (they call themselves POTUSSIES) has gone missing at a high-society gala. At the same time, a humungous python with a huge lump in its stomach is found on the property. Angie is the wildlife wrangler summoned to deal with the python, and putting two and two together, she knows what has happened to the missing lady. But as luck would have it, an illegal immigrant, Diego, who has just landed in Florida by boat, ends up being implicated in the death of the lady and lands in prison, with the anti-immigration frenzy being whipped up by the President at its peak. Angie knows that Diego is innocent and wants him to be freed. How she manages to do this forms the main plot of the book.

But along the way, we meet a large number of characters, including a police detective, several Secret Service agents, the other POTUSSIES, the rich lady’s grown sons, the petty criminals sent to recover her body from the python, Angie’s stepson, Diego’s fellow inmates in the prison, the workers at the property where the python is found, and of course, the President and the First Lady. Hiaasen has cleverly skirted libel laws by referring to the President and the First Lady by their Secret Service “code names” rather than their actual names, but everything else – their entire personas – are clearly Trump and Melania. If anything, Hiaasen has made the President even more laughable than he is in real life, and there is a hilarious subplot involving his tanning room and the people who keep it up and running.

I hadn’t read any books by Carl Hiaasen before this, and it good to add another name to the list of authors whose books I like.

Squeeze Me
Author: Carl Hiaansen
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: August 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Death of Vivek Oji” by Akwaeke Emezi

I started reading The Death of Vivek Oji with very few expectations. It had been widely acclaimed by critics and had been on several “Best Books of 2020” lists, and this had actually diminished my expectations of it — I hadn’t had much luck with many critically acclaimed fiction books lately. To my surprise, I was immediately caught up in the story, and now that I have finished reading it, I would have to rate it as one of the better books I have read recently.

I also have to admit being intrigued by the name of the book as the main reason for picking up the book to begin with. The name “Vivek” is a decidedly Indian name, whereas I knew that the book was set in Nigeria. Were they using Indian names there? That mystery was solved pretty quickly — it turns out that the protagonist, Vivek Oji, is half-Indian and half-Nigerian. His mother is from India, and this made the novel very relatable to me — there was so many references and colloquialisms I was familiar with. At the same time, I also enjoyed learning about Nigerian culture — the customs, the food, and the manner in which their English is punctuated with Nigerian words (just like in India).

Cultural assimilation aside, the story of the novel is very somber, which, given the name of the book, should come as no surprise. The book starts with Vivek’s death, and a death that is especially gruesome at that — he is left outside his house without any clothes on, in a pool of blood, with his head bashed in. This is how his mother finds him. There are so many questions — How did he die? Who killed him? Why did they take off his clothes? Who brought the body to the house? How did they know where he lived? In addition to his parents being devastated with grief and arranging for his burial, his mother wants to find the answers to these questions and pursues them obsessively, returning over and over to his friends to find out what they knew.

What actually happened to Vivek unfolds over the course of the book, so it is, in part, a mystery — you don’t exactly know what happened until the very end. However, the story is told in flashback and from the perspective of many characters, including Vivek’s mother, his cousin whom he was very close to, and some of his close friends. The writing is brilliant, sparse yet gut-punching. From that perspective, it is not a book one would read in order to be “entertained” as such. However, it provided me with a keener understanding of not just life in Nigeria, but also some broader social issues that are universal, across all countries and cultures.

The Death of Vivek Oji
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: August 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.