“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

The author of The Secret History, Donna Tartt, is best known for her book, The Goldfinch, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and which was recently made into a movie. Even though the movie was almost universally panned by critics, I loved it, which made me want to read more of Donna Tartt’s work. The Secret History is her first book, published in 1992, and like The Goldfinch, it is extremely long (592 pages) and amazingly detailed. In fact, given the length of her books (The Goldfinch was 784 pages), I was not surprised to find that she publishes a book only every 10 years or so — The Goldfinch, published in 2013, was her third book, following her second one, The Little Friend, which was published in 2002. 

The Secret History came to me so highly recommended that I didn’t bother with knowing what it was about — my copy of the book from the library was missing the blurb — and I plunged right into it, prepared to stop reading as soon as it got uninteresting. And for such a long book, this seemed more likely than not. But much to my surprise, I found it fascinating and while it did lose a bit of momentum towards the end, I was so invested in the story by this time that I had no trouble finishing it — I had to know what happens in the end.

The book is set in a small liberal arts college in Vermont and the protagonist is a new student, Richard, who has transferred to it from a local college in California that he attended after high school. He is not close to his parents and they do not care much about him either, and with no siblings as well, there is no real family that he is close to. This makes it believable that he would be strongly attracted to a small group of students who keep to themselves and choose to be isolated from the other students. In fact, not only do they distance themselves socially, they are academically separated as well, as they study Greek exclusively under the tutelage of a brilliant, charismatic, and eccentric professor, who seems to have the kind of leverage with the college that is needed to create such a closed classroom.

Richard manages to break through and get inducted in the group, and at first all goes well — he loves the closeness and the camaraderie as well as getting deeper into Greek and the classics. But then, there is an accidental murder during one of the Greek rituals being performed by the group (it is called “Bacchanalia” — there is actually such a thing, as I found when I looked it up), and this murder is then followed by a deliberate murder of a student in the group who was blackmailing the others to keep quiet about it. As a reader, you know this is coming, since the book starts with a prologue about the murder — so it is not a “murder mystery” as such — but you don’t know the “how” and the “why,” which keeps you hooked. Then there is the whole aftermath of the second murder, how it plays out with the family of the dead student, and what effect it has on the group.

While the basic premise of The Secret History — that a professor can form an exclusive club of students within a college and dictate their academic requirements, that some students would actually want to be part of such a club that won’t really give them a usable degree, and that anyone would want to get so knee-deep into Greek that they don’t care about learning anything else — is downright unbelievable, it is to the author’s credit that she can take something so implausible and craft a story around it that seems so believable, so authentic. And the book was so vivid, so full of details about the lives of these students and about life in a college town, not to mention the extensive discourse on Greek mythology and Greek philosophy, that I was completely hooked.

And rather than being intimidated by the length of the book, it was so nice to have a good long book to sink my teeth into!

The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt   
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: September 1992 

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Island of a Thousand Mirrors” by Nayomi Munaweera

I was entranced by this book. Not only was it such a gripping story, the quality of the writing was so lyrical that I actually read the book slowly to savor it, which is not something I normally do. Also, the story is set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which, being from neighboring India, was something I knew a little about — but not a whole lot. Any reference to war in India usually brings to mind its long-standing conflict with Pakistan, and to a smaller extent, its conflict with China in the 1960s. Most Indians don’t pay much attention to this relatively small island nation, just south of India’s border, except when the conflict comes to our doors, as with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Also known as the “Tamil Tigers,” this is the same militant organization that is on one side of the conflict in Sri Lanka, with the other being the Sinhalese, who make up the largest ethnic group in the country.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors follows the lives of two women, one Sinhalese and the other Tamil, growing up in different parts of the country. They never meet, but their lives intersect towards the end in an unexpectedly brutal way. The Sinhalese woman, Yasodhara, grows up in the capital city, Colombo, in the years before the conflict, and has what can best be described as an idyllic childhood, with a loving extended family. When the civil war escalates and the brutality of it comes too close to home, Yasodhara’s parents immigrate to the US and she lives there, shielded from the conflict, until she returns to Sri Lanka for a visit — urged by her sister who has returned before her — to heal from a broken marriage.

In parallel, we also follow the life of Saraswathi, who grows up in the north of the island in a Tamil enclave, and despite the best efforts of her parents to keep her away from the conflict, she ends up being recruited by the Tamil Tigers to join the war for “Eelam,” the independent Tamil state they want. Saraswathi had dreamt of being a teacher growing up, but then she was captured by Sinhalese soldiers and suffered such horrific sexual violence that the only two options she could see before her were suicide — like some of her other friends who had been subjected to the same violence — or joining the Tamil Tigers. She ends up choosing the latter, and the memory of the abuse she suffered makes her a particularly brutal soldier, one who has no problem with wielding a machete and slashing even women and children to death. Her ferocity, cold-bloodedness, and fearlessness make her rise quickly through the ranks of the Tamil Tigers and lead her to become what is perceived as the highest honor for a soldier in the movement — a suicide bomber.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is beautifully written, capturing the magical quality of the island, its tranquility, and its lushness in the years before the conflict, as well as the horrors of the civil war once it starts, the brutality, the riots, the senseless slaughter of people, the atrocities committed on both sides. Seeing the war through the personal lives of the two protagonists who are from the opposite sides of the ethnic conflict, and who get embroiled in it without wanting to, shows that there no winners in a war — everyone loses.

Despite the war being the central thread running through the book — and it is to the credit of the writing that I approached these parts with a sense of dread and foreboding — a good part of first half is devoted to describing Yasodhara’s extended family, starting with both sets of grandparents and going as far back as when the British departed the island in 1948.  This made Island of a Thousand Mirrors a truly multi-generational saga, with details about the lives of the different family members, their houses, their food, their day-to-day activities, family dynamics, family traditions, childhood friendships, first loves, and marriages. Not only was it fascinating to see how life and customs evolved in Sri Lanka — and in my case, to see the parallels with life in India — but also to see it captured in such beautiful, evocative prose. Here is an example, describing an interior courtyard in the childhood home of Visaka, Yasodhara’s mother:

The queen of this domain, an enormous trailing jasmine, impervious to pruning, spreads a fragrant carpet of white. When the sea breeze whispers, a  snowing flurry of flowers sweeps into the house so that Visaka’s earliest and most tender memory is the combined scent of jasmine and sea salt.

Another example, this one describing a dip in the ocean by Yasodhara’s father, Nishan, when he, as “the last British ships slip over the horizon,” is cavorting on beaches he does not yet know are pristine:

Farther out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day, a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s outspread sarong being sung to sleep.

With prose that is so poetic through the book, reading it was sheer delight. I was sorry when it came to an end.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors
Author: Nayomi Munaweera              
Publisher and Date, US Edition: St. Martin’s Press, September 2014        
First published in Sri Lanka in 2012 by Perara Hussein Publishing House

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Searching for Sylvie Lee” by Jean Kwok

What made me pick up this book from the many displayed in the ‘New’ section of my local library was the quote by Paula Hawkins on the cover, calling it a “twisting tale of love, loss, and dark family secrets.” I loved Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, The Girl on the Train, which was also a huge bestseller, and an endorsement from her seemed very promising. If it was even one-tenth as good as The Girl on the Train, that would be good enough for me.

Having finished it, I can say that it was — just about. I was at least able to finish it without forcing myself to — it did manage to sustain my interest right up to the end, which is no mean feat, given the number of books I started recently that I was forced to abandon after a few chapters because they just didn’t grip me. As the title of the book suggests — Searching for Sylvie Lee — there is a mystery at the heart of it, which makes you want to go on reading until it is solved. Over and above that, however, I also found the book well written, with a cast of characters in a setting that was unusual, to say the least. The majority of the book is set in the Netherlands, and most of the main characters are Chinese, either immigrants or, in the case of the younger generation, either Chinese Americans or Chinese Dutch. Here in the US, we are surrounded by Chinese Americans, so there is not much novelty, but in the Netherlands, people of Chinese origin are still a rarity, and it was very interesting to read about their experiences.

The basic plot of the book is that a young Chinese American woman, Sylvie — Ivy-league educated, smart, and successful — goes to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother — and then just disappears. She was supposed to have travelled back to the US, but never shows up. Her family is panic-stricken, and her younger sister, Amy, travels to the Netherlands to try and find her. The reason their grandmother was there to begin with was that she had been living permanently with her well-to-do niece, Helena, helping her with raising her son, Lukas. In fact, Sylvie was sent to stay with them for most of her childhood, as her immigrant parents were struggling to make ends meet in the US. Thus, Sylvie and Lukas grew up together, and she had a strong maternal bond with her grandmother, which she was never able to cultivate with her own mother even after she was brought back to the US.

The story is alternately told from the points of view of Amy, her mother (who, in turns out, has a critical role to play in how the plot unfolds), and Sylvie herself. Also, it is told in staggered timelines, with Sylvie’s chapters set about a month before Amy’s, so we are seeing their experiences in parallel, but without really knowing what happens to Sylvie until closer to the end of the book. It was an interesting plot device, one that I haven’t come across very often, and it was effective in sustaining the momentum of the story while progressively inching towards the mystery of what happened to Sylvie.

While I did find the end a little anticlimactic — it started out seeming like a murder mystery but wasn’t really — I enjoyed the overall storyline, the writing, and especially the details about life in the Netherlands as well as the Chinese Dutch experience of it. Those were very authentic and seemed to come from the author’s own experience of being of Chinese descent and currently living in the Netherlands. Searching for Sylvie Lee is by no means a work of literature, but it was overall, a good read.

Searching for Sylvie Lee
Author: Jean Kwok                               
Publisher: William Morrow               
Publication Date: June 2019       

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett

Imagine Me Gone

This is the sort of book that quietly grips you. You don’t realize how invested you are in the narrative until you turn the page and gasp.

That’s because it’s sort of a quiet story. A story of a family, a husband and wife, their three kids, and each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member. Haslett’s ability to so thoroughly transform his writing to believably portray five different voices is impressive, displaying his comfort and agility with his craft. The thoughts of his characters are so rich with details and suggestions that you feel comfortably burrowed into their minds.

This is especially important for this book, which deals with mental illness at its center. John, the father in the story, is prone to serious depression, an illness that his oldest son, Michael, comes to inherit. Thus, the narrative is laced with a sense of dread, but also inevitability, as you witness the children growing up and the parents growing old. These dual themes push the story forward in a thoroughly engaging fashion. There is something so beautiful about reading about the way in which people can care for each other, want to solve each other’s problems. The love between these family members is complicated and nuanced, and a real pleasure to read about.

However, some of the power of this novel also comes from the fact that the characters do not have to just worry about their mental states of mind. Worry about money, partnership, setting—all of these problems seem to chase the characters as well, giving one a sense of the relentlessness of the world. One big problem does not mean others cease to burden. It was an artful glimpse into some of the many stresses of living with or loving someone with a mental illness.

Haslett uses a number of creative techniques to embrace his characters. Playing with form, instead of just telling a straight narrative, can be gimmicky in some novels, but here, it really works. Hasslet includes things like letters characters have written, medical forms being filled out, and these help to further deepen our understanding of the characters themselves. Furthermore, from Maine to Massachusetts to London, Hasslet is able to weave in the settings in a beautiful way, unpacking the ways in which the character’s surroundings are emblematic of their mental state.

Really, this book is stunning. The prose is both pretty and well observed, and the plot engaging. Most importantly to me, as someone who has lived through a family member’s illness, Hasslet was able to vocalize parts of the experience that I had not even conceived into words yet. It all felt very true. I can’t recommend it enough.

Imagine Me Gone
Author: Adam Haslett
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: May 2016

Contributor: Sarisha Kurup attends Bowdoin College in Maine.

“Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I loved the TV adaptation of this book that came out as a miniseries a couple of months ago on Amazon Prime Video, and while I don’t always enjoy the books after I have seen their screen adaptations — the reverse is also true; in fact, I typically hate the screen adaptations of the books I love — I thought I would give this one a try. I had not read any books by either Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett before — both of whom are such literary heavyweights — and the TV show was so funny and had such a creative plot that I was curious to read the book it had been adapted from.

First, the plot. As I said, it was extremely imaginative as well as clever, not to mention incredibly funny. Inspired by the Bible, it has all the biblical elements including God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, and Angels and Demons. The story begins, as in the Bible, with the creation of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, where Adam is enticed by Eve to eat the forbidden apple, spawning the birth of evil. The two main protagonists of Good Omens are an angel and a demon, Aziraphale and Crowley, who are present at the start, and who, in the course of the centuries since the beginning have become friends, a fact that they take great pains to hide from their respective higher-ups — the angels led by God and the demons lead by Satan respectively.

It is now in the 1980s, and the end of the world is near, but that has to be set in motion by the Antichrist who has to be born and brought up on earth. The book is set in England, and the location for the Apocalypse is a small country town called Tadfield that is close to London. Crowley is charged with taking the demonic baby to a religious hospital in Tadfield where satanic nuns will switch a newborn with the Antichrist baby. But there is a mix-up, and the Antichrist baby, Adam, ends up growing up in a normal house and has a normal childhood. The Apocalypse is scheduled for when the child turns eleven.

Also, it turns out that all of this has been prophesied by a witch in the 17th century, called Agnes Nutter, and there is a whole subplot involving her descendent, Anathema Device, who has Agnes’ book of prophecies and arrives in Tadfield a few days before the prophesied end of the world to try and make sense of the prophecy. (Since the prophecies are written in the 17th century, they are written in a language and style that is hard to decipher.) She happens to meet and get romantically involved — just a few hours before the Apocalypse — with the descendent, Newton Pulsifer, of the witch-hunter who had burned Agnes at the stake in the 17th century.

While there are other subplots in the story — for example, the four horsemen who are supposed to usher in the Apocalypse are, in keeping with the times, “badass” bikers in leather jackets — what ultimately happens is that the Apocalypse is averted through the combined efforts of Aziraphale and Crowley, Anathema and Newton, and the eleven-year old Adam and his group of three close friends.

While this plot may sound somewhat ponderous, even for a fantasy novel, it is so funnily rendered — so witty and so clever — that it never seemed too over-the-top. The quality of the writing, the smarts, and the witticisms were not just true for the book as a whole, but for every page, every paragraph, in fact, almost every sentence of it.

And therein was the problem for me — there was no let-up. When I started the book, I was awed by its sheer brilliance, by how funny and how clever each page was. After a while, however, it became a little too much. With every sentence so finely crafted, every paragraph so full of imagery and sharply written humor, every page so amazingly creative that you have to pause and admire it, my enjoyment gradually turned to exhaustion. It’s almost as if the authors took every single bit of the book and strove to make it as funny and as brilliant as possible. While entirely admirable, this made the book overwrought and got in the way of the story for me.

I never thought a novel could be too clever for its own good, but unfortunately, that is how I felt about Good Omens.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
Authors: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett                     
Original Publisher and Date: Workman, 1990               
Reprint Publisher and Date: William Morrow, Nov 2006                                            

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“How Not to Die Alone” by Richard Roper

This book had such an intriguing title that I could not help giving it a try when I heard about it. Also, it is a debut novel and it is always wonderful when you find a fresh voice that you like. Here, the debut novelist, Richard Roper, comes from a background in publishing, so it was hardly surprisingly for me to find that the book is well written and draws you in right away.

The title of the book comes from what the protagonist, Andrew, does for a living — he works in the city council department (of a city in the UK) that is tasked with finding the next of kin for those who die alone; and if they cannot be found, to see if the deceased had any money to pay for a funeral; and if that failed too, to give the deceased a barebones funeral. The work involves visiting the homes of such people who have died alone — often living in squalor, with their bodies not discovered until a neighbor or a mail worker smells something bad — and searching through all the mess for any clues about long-lost friends or relatives who could be notified or find any money that could be used to fund a funeral. Andrew tries to make this gruesome work as humane as possible, even attending the funerals of these people, although he is not required to.

Andrew has been doing this work alone until the department gets a new hire, a woman called Peggy, who joins him in the work. She is like-minded in how she goes about it, and together, they make a good team. By this time, you, of course, except this to turn into a love story, and that is exactly what happens. It also marks the point where this well-written, quirky novel degenerates into a very predictable story, with a plot so ludicrous that I almost felt cheated. Andrew has been pretending to his colleagues that he is married with a wife and two kids, and he has been able to keep up that charade for five years until Peggy comes along. She is married too with two kids — for real — but her husband is an alcoholic and the marriage is falling apart. Very conveniently, Andrew falls in love with Peggy and fesses up and tells the truth about his lie, and while Peggy does not divorce her husband and come together with Andrew by the end of the book, she likes Andrew too and we are given to understand that this is what is going to happen.

In another subplot, Andrew is into model trains and is part of an online forum of similar model train enthusiasts, who step up to help him out when he appeals for their support.

It also turns out that Andrew didn’t just conjure up his imaginary wife and kids out of thin air — he actually had a girlfriend he was madly in love with, who died in a freak accident.

By this point, the book had degenerated so much from its promising start that I couldn’t wait to finish it and move on to something else.

The book ends with Andrew and Peggy getting together to start a charity which could spend more time and resources to track down people who died alone and at the very least, arrange for volunteers to go to their funerals so they would at least have some people in attendance.

While I found the description of the work that Andrew does fascinating — I had not even thought of what happens to people who die alone without any friends or family — it was such a pity that the book degenerated into something so hackneyed and predictable after what seemed to me a very promising start.

How Not to Die Alone
Author: Richard Roper
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication Date: May 2019

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I read this book twice. It is a book that has made quite the splash—it was long-listed for the 2018 Booker Prize and is on every critical “ten best books” list that I have come across lately. It is the second book by the author, Sally Rooney, whose debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was also highly acclaimed. While I have not read that book, Normal People came my way recently, and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. Unlike many books acclaimed by critics, Normal People was very easy to get into and I no trouble reading it all the way through to the end. However, I felt that I had missed something—the thing that everyone was raving about—which prompted me to go back and re-read it, more slowly this time. I am glad I did, as I was able to appreciate the book a lot better and picked up on all the subtle nuances that I had missed in the first reading.

Normal People is completely focused—to the exclusion of everything else—on the relationship between a boy and a girl. It is a love story of sorts, but not the traditional kind where the two people meet, fall in love, and eventually get together (the happy ending), or are doomed to be apart (the sad ending). Rather than looking at the external circumstances that bring the lovers together or apart, the novel looks mostly inward at their feelings, which are—to put it mildly—very complicated.

The boy is Connell, the son of a single mother who earns her living as a cleaner, and the girl is Marianne, who goes to the same high school as Connell. While they see each other in passing at school, they get a chance to become better acquainted when Connell’s mother starts working in Marianne’s house and he comes by to pick her up after she is done. Connell and Marianne are attracted to each other and become lovers, but they keep their relationship a secret because Marianne is somewhat of a pariah at school—she is aloof, almost supercilious, keeps to herself and has no friends—while Connell is one of the popular kids. The secrecy eventually takes a toll on the relationship, which ends with Marianne dropping out of school and Connell trying to date other girls.

They meet again in college—Marianne had encouraged Connell, when they were still together in school, to apply to the same college that she was going to apply to—and despite trying to be with other people, they, more often than not, end up with each other. However, it is not an easy relationship by any means, as each of them has their own internal demons which torment them. Connell is always aware of his working-class background and he has a deep-seated inferiority complex because of that, and this is not something that his relationship with Marianne can heal. At one point, his condition degenerates to the point where he can’t even care whether he is alive or dead, and he has to start seeing a counselor.

On her part, Marianne is masochistic and gravitates towards relationships in which she is submissive and is beaten, which likely comes from being brought up in an abusive family with an elder brother who bullied and hit her. Connell is not a violent person and can never imagine hitting Marianne or harming her in any way. Thus, every though they realize that they love each other and will likely never find anyone else who is such a good fit, it is not enough for them to be together. The novel ends with Connell’s acceptance to a prestigious writing program in the US, a whole continent away from Ireland (where the book is set), and while he is not keen to leave Marianne, they both know that he will most likely go, because, as Marianne puts it, “I’ll always be here.”

While there is no “plot” in the story as such, what I really appreciated about the book was how well it captured the messiness of life and of human nature. Human beings are complicated creatures, with complex feelings and emotions, and even “true love”—for those lucky to find it—is not really a panacea. We still have to wrestle with our own internal demons. There are no pat answers, no magic cure-all for mental anguish or existential angst. People have to, first and foremost, find some measure of peace and equanimity within themselves before they can find happiness in a relationship. Even if it is the most perfect one for them.

Bottom line, you can’t live life by love alone. And this is what, ultimately, Normal People is about.

Normal People
Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: April 2019

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Us” by David Nicholls

I really liked this book. I borrowed it from a friend with no expectations, just a mild curiosity. I had heard of the movie “One Day” which was based on a book by the same author, but that was all I knew. I started the book, preparing to abandon it after a few pages if it did not grip me right away. (I do this for a lot of the books that I borrow, and since I do not buy them, I feel no compulsion to read them if I do not find them engaging.)

But I did! Us was engaging and funny and very well written, right from the first page consistently until the very end. At the same time, it was not dense or dark, and I came away from reading it with a pleasant sense of enjoyment, despite it not having a “fairy tale” ending as such.

Us is the story of a man’s last-ditch attempt to save his 25 year-old marriage. It is set in England. The man is Douglas Petersen, who has a very conventional personality and is perfectly “nice,” even if somewhat staid. He is the kind who has checked all the right boxes in his life — he has worked hard to become a biochemist, he has a stable job, he started off in academia but eventually moved to a better career with a bigger paycheck in a corporation, and is, by all accounts, a successful man with a respected career and a decent income. In contrast, his wife, Connie, has an artistic temperament and is very free-spirited, with a laissez faire to life. They are set up by his sister and it is a case of opposites attracting — Douglas falls madly in love with her, and Connie is drawn to his stable personality, his methodical approach to life, which is so different from her intense and often turbulent life as an artist. After three years of dating, she eventually agrees to marry him.

They are happy enough in the beginning, and the shared grief of the death of their first child, a daughter, shortly after she was born, keep them close. Their bond is maintained after their son, Albie, is born and while he is little. It is when he starts getting older that the relationship starts to get strained and the differences in their temperaments become more pronounced. Douglas also has a difficult relationship with Albie, which only deteriorates as Albie gets older, and it is almost at breaking point by the time Albie turns 17. It is also around this time that Connie figures that she is no longer happy in the marriage and tells Douglas that she would like to leave him.

The catch is that they had planned a grand vacation in Europe that summer to celebrate Albie’s graduation from school, and rather than cancel it, Douglas and Connie decide to go ahead with the trip. After all, they have been together for so long – what are a few weeks more? Douglas, on his part, hopes that the trip will make Connie rethink her decision to leave him, and it will also help him to get closer to his son. So they set off.

However, the trip is a disaster almost from the start. The differences between them — Douglas’s methodical, planned approach to everything in contrast to Connie’s more relaxed, artistic temperament — are accentuated. Albie, who is much more like Connie and just cannot abide what he sees as Douglas’s heavy-handedness, doesn’t even want to be on this trip. Things come to a head in Amsterdam and Albie leaves to go off on his own, with a girl he has met there.

Connie and Douglas dejectedly prepare to return to England – so much for their grand vacation – when Douglas decides on the spur of the moment – uncharacteristically for him – at the airport when the flight home is boarding that he is going to stay on in Europe and try and find Albie. The rest of the book narrates his various adventures and misadventures as he embarks upon this quest. He does eventually find Albie and they even have a reconciliation of sorts, but at the end of the day, it really does not save his marriage as Douglas had hoped it would. He and Connie stay on together for about a year after the Europe trip — it did make Connie reconsider and try to make their marriage work — but eventually, the realization of how fundamentally different they were could no longer be swept under the carpet, and she does go ahead with leaving him. The separation, however, is amicable and they are able to stay friends and co-parent Albie, who has also, by this time, settled into an agreeable father-son relationship with Douglas.

What I really liked about Us, in addition to how enjoyable, witty, and well-written it was, is how spot-on it was about people and relationships. The characters of Douglas and Connie were so authentic and their interactions extremely believable. In particular, the rocky relationship that Douglas has with his son was accurate to a tee — anyone who has a teenage kid can completely relate to their interaction. I also liked the fact that there was no dramatic fallout between Connie and Douglas. Their relationship starts to fray only gradually, which is closer to how it is in real life. Connie’s innate artistic temperament, which had become dormant after years of domestication and parenthood, eventually starts to reassert itself, and leads to her feeling less and less close to Douglas until she decides she owes it to herself to leave and try to find what makes her happy.

Despite Douglas’s wishful thinking, as well as ours as readers — we are rooting for him, the protagonist — there is no “happy ending” here where the marriage is saved. But at least, the story does not end on a discordant note as it was threatening to when it started.

Us
Author: David Nicholls
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: October 2014

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop is a cute read, particularly for music buffs (which I am not). The protagonist (Frank) has had a bohemian childhood, raised by an unconventional and controlling mother with a passion for music on vinyl that she passed on to Frank. Frank owns a music store on a run-down street that sells only vinyl and lives in an apartment above his store. The street is populated with several other run-down stores run by picturesque (and down and out) characters, all of who form a tight knit community where they mind each other’s business. The scene is charmingly set and Frank’s encyclopedic musical knowledge and his “super-power” to find just the right music that speaks to each customer is eloquently described.

Into this setting walks our heroine – a mysterious foreigner who falls in love with Frank (and he with her). The story proceeds and sad things happen but there is some romance and lots of music. Gentrification comes to the run-down street and vinyl is supplanted by CDs and Frank suffers, but the book manages to end on a relatively positive note.

This is not a deep book or even an excellent book but it’s a cute read and the music playlist is lovely – I have been listening to it on Spotify and the range of genres is amazing.

The best thing about this book is that it got me to check out Joyce’s other writing and I found her previous work and read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by her, which I absolutely loved.

If you read this book first, you’ll be well served. If you read Harold Fry first and come to this book expecting something as powerful, you will be disappointed. 

The Music Shop
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: January 2018

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer and an avid reader of fiction.

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce

A friend brought me Rachel Joyce’s new book The Music Shop (also reviewed here) and I liked that so much that I looked up her previous work and found this title which is evidently her best known work.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the story of an awkward, socially inept, mostly overlooked and undervalued plodding sort of man with an unremarkable career and dreary retired life. Harold gets a letter from an ex-colleague saying that she is in hospice, dying of cancer and he is struck by the fact that this woman did something remarkable for him that he never acknowledged or gave thanks for and she simply dropped out of his life for decades. He decides to write back, a note of a sympathy in a sentence or two, but as he walks to the mailbox to mail his missive, he finds himself just walking further and further towards her hospice (which is hundreds of miles away). Without forethought or plan he finds himself taking weeks and months to walk to her side and meet her before she dies.

As the story unfolds we learn about Harold’s life – his unhappy marriage and his lack of success as a father, his friendship of Queenie (the dying colleague) – in small snippets, interspersed with the details of his journey, the people he meets and the life stories that are impacted by his journey. We come to know his wife and the love and promise of the early days of their marriage, decaying to endless anger and bitterness in the present moment. And we see Harold as anything but unremarkable in his quest.

This is a short book and a very quick read, written in a straightforward, direct manner with no frills and flourishes. The story is powerful, reading almost like a biblical parable. And the ending is sublime with two twists, one that I saw coming pretty early on and the other that knocked me over. There are a couple of patches in the middle where I was impatient with Harold’s entourage and some side stories, but other than that, each page was a gift.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: July 2012

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer and an avid reader of fiction.

“Snap” by Belinda Bauer

Snap by Belinda Bauer is a murder mystery longlisted for the Booker in 2018, and I absolutely loved it. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries which are gripping, well paced and well plotted but mostly formulaic – it’s not easy to churn out book after book that makes for a pleasant afternoon read, quickly devoured and quickly forgotten but fun while it lasts. There are many authors that do a great job in the thriller category (Lee Child, Baldacci, Turow, etc.) and many that do a wonderful job in the murder mystery genre (Louise Penny is a great favorite and so is Ian Rankin).
However, writing in the same genre but in a class apart are others, like Ruth Rendell, Barbara Vine, Colin Dexter, Tana French.

Like these stellar writers and perhaps even surpassing them, Belinda Bauer has written a murder mystery that is wonderfully populated with characters and their broken lives just like a literary novel, but with the characteristic pace and plotting that makes a mystery novel a page-turner. I couldn’t decide if I should read slowly to savor the writing and the details or read fast to move on with the plot. I did a bit of both!

The protagonist is Jack, a teenage boy trying to hold his family together in the absence of both parents and dealing with the murder of his mother. His character, his thoughts and his trauma are very well depicted with a light and deft narration and Jack retains his teenage-ness without descending into melodrama or pathos. Jack’s siblings, his neighbour and the police men and women are brought to life beautifully, with each having a very distinct voice and personality. The story unfolds slowly and surely but the end doesn’t fully live up to the promise of the beginning. Even so, I highly recommend this book and will be buying a copy or two to give as gifts.

Snap
Author: Belinda Bauer
Publisher: Bantam Press
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer, a voracious reader of fiction.

“How to Behave in a Crowd” by Camille Bordas

How to Behave in a Crowd

After several unsuccessful attempts at trying to find a book that could sustain my interest, I finally managed to find and finish How to Behave in a Crowd. I typically pick up so many recommended books from the library that I don’t remember where I heard about this book — it’s not a best-selling or award-winning book that everyone knows about. But once I started reading it, there were two main aspects to it that captured my attention and sustained it until the end: one, it is set in France and written by a French author (Camille Bordas’ previous books are in French but this one is in English); and two, it is a first person narration by a eleven year old boy. Not only was it so interesting to be immersed in a culture I know very little about, there is also something very clean and direct about a narration from a child’s perspective — it is free from the convoluted thinking that adults tend to have.

The book itself is not so much a story as a slice of life — a slice of about two years in the life of Isidore Mazal, or Dory as he is called, the youngest of six children living in a small French town with his family. While there is nothing particularly remarkable about his parents, the same cannot be said about his siblings, all of whom are academically brilliant and exceptionally bright — they are always reading or busy with research and other intellectual pursuits, with little interest in socializing or being with other people. While Dory is different from them and is more “normal,” growing up in a house overrun with high-achieving siblings makes him a lot more mature compared to other kids of his age.

Shortly after the book opens, the father dies unexpectedly from a heart attack, and since he was away from home on work a lot, the family is, for the most part, able to carry on with their lives as before. Dory’s mother continues to get a widow’s pension, and there is no financial impact either, at least none that Dory can discern. His siblings continue on their high-achieving academic paths, with three of them eventually getting PhDs, and the eldest even moving to the US to get a second PhD. In France, PhD defenses are so long and such a memorable event that the entire family attends, that after the PhD defense of the third sibling, one of Dory’s brothers (who is into music rather than academics) quips: “Sometimes I wonder if [our] father didn’t die when he did just to avoid all the PhD defenses.”

While there is no dramatic fallout as such from the father’s death that happens early in the book, we see that in the course of the following two years, most of Dory’s siblings battle with disappointments and struggle to live up to the promising future everyone thought was in store for them. Dory himself had no great expectations to begin with, so there are no academic disappointments in store for him, but on the personal front, he has to deal with the death of one of his closest friends, Denise, who committed suicide. Even though she was severely depressed and had been talking about suicide for years, it still comes as a shock to him. But Dory copes without falling apart, just as he did after the death of his father, and the book ends with the subtle understanding that Dory, despite being the youngest, has become the source of comfort and support for his troubled older siblings.

In addition to the uniqueness of the setting (France) and the unconventional narration (by a pre-teen boy), what really amazed me about this book was the steady sprinkling of quips and insights throughout, to the extent that I actually had to highlight the pages on which they appeared with Post-it tabs. I already mentioned the one about the father dying to avoid sitting through his kids’ long and tedious PhD defenses, which I thought was really funny. Here is another one, which is what Dory thinks when Denise tells him matter-of-factly that he’s a conformist and goes on to add that all children are.

I took this as an insult but then I realized taking the work “conformist” as an insult was the most conformist reaction and so I let it slide.

And this is where Dory and Denise are discussing how they are advised to be strong after tragedies and have the courage to hold on to the small pleasures of the moment. This is what Denise has to say:

“Courage my ass. It doesn’t take courage to be in the moment. What really takes guts is to live each day as if you were going to hang around for the next ten years at least. Account for something. Live up to something. Now, that is hard. That requires a little more pondering and reflection, a little more strength.”

Another one, this time by Simone, one of Dory’s older sisters, when and Dory are discussing dictatorship and why good people never want to become dictators:

“All good people want is to be left alone and help those around them. The problem is good people lack ambition.”

And finally, this is what Dory’s mother tells him when he asks her about finding another husband or boyfriend some months after his father dies:

“It’s your memories with the person that become your love for the person, you know? And building memories takes time. A lot of time, actually. I don’t think I can do it again. I don’t believe I have enough time left to do it again.”

I found it amazing that a young author can have such profound insights and is able to capture them so effortlessly in her writing. How to Behave in a Crowd may not have won a lot of critical acclaim or commercial success, but I considered it a rare find for its dollops of wisdom sprinkled so unassumingly throughout the book.

How to Behave in a Crowd
Author: Camille Bordas
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books
Publication Date: August 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini

The early part of the book is set in Afghanistan, then moves briefly to Pakistan, and then to the US. The lead character spends his early years in Afghanistan with his Dad and then leaves the country during the Russian occupation and later returns during the peak of the Taliban rule. The story revolves around this eventful journey during which the lead character, Amir, transitions from boyhood to a grown-up, married man and finally a published author. Circumstances draw him back to Afghanistan, and the story then traces its way back for a US-Pak-Afghanistan-Pak-USA round trip during which he is exposed to life-threatening events and deep emotional trauma.

The book appears to be (at least partly) autobiographical. The lead character in the book is referred to in first person (“I”) throughout the book. In other words, the story is told in a narrative style. Some parts of the book refer to Fremont, and other parts of the SF Bay Area. It was nice to read references to places that I could relate to. Incidentally, the author is a physician based in the SF bay area. There are quite a few references to Hindi movies and Hindi music. The author has certainly been influenced to some extent by these movies. There are scenes that can be directly adapted into Hindi films — fight scenes, a sick person coughing blood yet refusing treatment, display of unusual courage despite fatal consequences, romance despite minimal interaction, etc.

I hear that this book is a big success. It also happens to be author’s first book. Given all the recent trouble in Afghanistan, the timing of this book could not have been better (it was published sometime in mid-2003). The book is certain to appeal to the western audience, in particular. There are plenty of references to contradictions of mullahs, Muslims who drink, atrocities of the Taliban, stoning to death etc. etc.

Overall, a superbly written novel, and a most engaging read. It’s only about 350 pages and not one of those long novels. I highly recommend the book, especially if you like fiction that involves family drama.

I’ll be curious to read the author’s next book. The deeply autobiographical nature of most maiden efforts often result in powerful, poignant storylines that often lead to huge successes which are hard to replicate. Also, subsequent books often tend to suffer from high expectations created after a successful first book. In any case, an excellent first novel.

The Kite Runner
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Publisher: Riverhead
Publication Date: June 2003

This review was originally published at: https://pakorakorner.blog/2005/09/17/book-review-kite-runner/

“Home Fire” by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire

I found it to be a solid plot, beautifully drawn characters, and as timely for us in America as it is for the UK and Muslims everywhere — with global terrorism, religion and radicalism. It shows insight into the minds and hearts of a group of a sometimes alienated community, looking at the problems of terrorism from the perspective of the Muslim immigrant and, finally, the government programs that are inadequate to deal with home grown radicals.

You may find the ending a bit strange — but not if you are Indian — typical Bollywood! (the movie ‘Dil Se’ comes to mind!). I got to know that this book is based loosely on Sophocles’ Antigone.

This novel has some great insights — why people become religious extremists, the difficulties of being a hyphenated Britisher (or, for that matter, American), and the many complexities of trying to be Muslim in a modern society. The moral conundrum of what and how to condemn the actions of those that may have chosen this path is really interesting.

Home Fire
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: August 2017

Contributor: Shamita Tripathy is a book enthusiast and works as a finance professional in the Bay area.

“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

Celestial and Roy are a young African-American couple — he’s a savvy salesman and she is on her way to establishing herself as a successful artist, making life-like, hand-sewn baby dolls or “poupées.”

Celestial and Roy have many common marriage challenges — in-laws, plans to start a family, their careers. After about a year and a half of marriage, Roy is falsely accused of attacking a woman. Celestial knows he’s innocent because she was there with him the whole time. But he’s still wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Roy’s incarceration is the central axis around which the story revolves — a story of all the people who are affected by it. The story is told from three separate points of view: from that of Celestial, the wife; Roy, the husband; and Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend.

Jones uses the three voices to pace her story, to pull back from the relationship and demonstrate the ravages of distance and time. They’re each fighting their individual battles — Roy with the injustice of what has been done to him and all that he’s lost when he has tried so hard to do everything right; Celestial, who is dealing with a battle between responsibility and desire, finding it hard to hold on to a marriage that hadn’t yet had time to “take”; and Andre, who was also Roy’s friend in college as well as the witness at their wedding. It is a story about a black couple in America ripped apart by a flawed justice system.

This is a powerful story with many layers of emotion, and every detail and character are woven together to form a phenomenal story of love, loss and reconciliation.

An American Marriage
Author: Tayari Jones
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication Date: February 2016

Contributor: Shamita Tripathy is a book enthusiast and works as a finance professional in the Bay area.