The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi: My Thoughts

A beautiful book cover, the promise of a traditional setting with a courageous woman protagonist and rave reviews from readers – Alka Joshi’s The Henna Artist ticks all the right boxes. However I picked the book because it was the choice of my book club and everyone was absolutely excited about this one.

A group of people reading the book with me, followed by a book discussion is just a very exciting proposition. So while I wait for the discussion, I must write what I think about the book.

The book is set in Jaipur in the mid 1950s and 30-year old Lakshmi is a much sought-after henna artist catering to the rich of the city and being privy to not just the secrets of the ladies but of the men as well. When Hari, the husband she had left years ago, turns up at her doorstep with a young girl who claims to be her sister, her life turns upside down. Soon she’s struggling to hold on to the financial independence she has carved for herself and her very reputation.

The storyline is captivating and has many twists and turns before it hurtles towards a conclusion, open enough for a sequel.

I liked the story but I had a few issues with the writing and the themes that were explored.

For one, I could not picturise the protagonist in my mind. There was not much physical description and Lakshmi just did not seem to fit into my idea of a woman in Jaipur, of that particular social strata and in that time period.

Lakshmi was also created to be unlikeable by the author I think. While I could understand her life story, her abusive marriage and an escape, her rise through sheer hard work and the taking of opportunities as they arose, I could not fathom her self-talk. She was guilty at every turn, thinking of her life choices and yet she’s manipulative and happy about it. Those two emotions seemed at loggerheads most of the time.

Radha, her younger sister too changes into an unlikeable character as the book progresses. From a timid girl she becomes a classist in just a few months, which is a little unbelievable. The kind of grudge she carries in her heart is also inexplicable after she’s lost all her family and comes to Jaipur to seek her only sister out.

Hari, Lakshmi’s husband is another character, whose transformation from an abusive, illiterate person to an empathetic healer is hard to fathom.

Many events in the story sound contrived. Things fall into place just too easily. It’s not the bigger, life-changing things but the smaller ones like the gift of the parrot from the palace to unlikely reconciliation between sisters to adoption of a child born out of wedlock to a loving family who had lost their own, that sound easy.

The setting didn’t work for me at all. It didn’t evoke the Jaipur of 1950s to me. Nor did it capture the spirit of Shimla in the few pages it was described. It felt too modern, even though it is just a few years after India achieved independence. Girls from remote villages in UP are well versed in the English classics with book keeping talents. It’s not just Lakshmi and Radha who are even more educated than the middle class but also Malik, the Muslim boy from an impoverished background who runs errands and buys things from market based on a list. All this feels very incongruous.

The thoughts that run in the minds of the characters are just too persistent. Every few pages we revisit Lakshmi’s guilt at abandoning her husband and bringing a bad name to her parents. For a woman who’s very sure of what she wants to do with her life, Lakshmi seems rather steeped in her past. The dialogues are repetitive as well. I had figured out how the book would end much before I reached the final chapters. The final nails in the coffin of her life in Jaipur were driven rather slow. Rather than feeling her pain, I only felt that the trope was overdone.

However, the book has its beauty. The henna description, the herbs and the potions, the life and times of the palace and the aristocracy come alive very well. The cruelty of the rich towards the poor is very believable. The story line is captivating and it’s a lovely portrayal of Indian culture to a foreign eye.

Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef by Vibha Batra: Book Review

Title: Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef
Author: Vibha Batra
Format: Paperback
Genre: Children (8-12)
Publisher: Scholastic India

Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef is funny and entertaining while also nudging out gender stereotyping. It’s an endearing book for children with lovable characters, laugh-out-loud situations and ‘fantasmazing’  language.

Pinkoo, the boy born with impossibly pink cheeks, prodded to become a shooting champion to fulfil his grandfather’s dream, has his heart set on baking scrumptious desserts.

The book is about his mission to avoid shooting and prove himself to be a MasterChef. He’s helped along by his loyal and talkative cousin Tutu, who is also the perfect side-kick. His friend Manu provides help and moral support and Nimrat clears Pinkoo’s path to success and glory.

Chocolate nougat cake, almond mocha cookies, motichoor ladoo white chocolate brownie, gulab jamun cheesecake – these mouthwatering are the real stars of the book with every page and dessert description getting you drooling.

Papaji, the strict dad, Beeji, the benevolent matriarch, Chachiji, the phone-peering aunt, shooting coach Aloo…Walia, Daljeet, the school bully, Chef Khanna and loads of other characters are drawn to perfection.

A special mention to the fantastic words coined by the author that kids I am sure, love everywhere. Wowmazing, tremenderously, yummysome are just some of them, capitalised in the text, catching the attention and delight of young readers.

Also refreshing is the way gender roles are confronted and demolished for the shams they are. Baking is considered girlie by Papaji who comes around by the end of the book. The school bullies would be silenced because of Pinkoo’s baking prowess. And Tikki, Tutu’s little sister is the next shooting star, a sport usually considered masculine.

As events unfold and the story progresses, everything gets funnier. To quote the funny passages would require quoting at least three-quarters of the book.

The quirky illustrations by Shamika Chaves add to the fun factor.

The children are just going to love all the action, friendship, challenges and the special feeling of doing just what they want. Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef is a star of a book.

You can order your copy from Amazon.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon powered by the Blogchatter Book Review Program.

The Why of Book Reviews

Those who know me know the passion I have for book reviews. It’s not about the judgement or even capturing the essence of the book – it’s the expression of what the book made you feel that most catches my eye.

Every reader has her own interpretation of what she reads about and this feeling is what’s valuable. Let us for a moment cast aside political correctness and what must be and the examples we set through our opinions in book reviews. I want to share the why of book reviews at the most basic gut level.

I follow a lot of blogs and subscribe to newsletters only for book reviews. Mind you, I don’t want to read all those books. Some talk of books in far flung areas or of subjects that wouldn’t elicit a reaction from me. I don’t want a verdict (though I am guilty of writing that in my reviews) of how good or bad it is and whether the pace slackens in the middle or the end has all threads neatly tied.

What I want to read are the bits that stood out for you. The description that made you stop and stare wonderingly out of your window, thinking back to some other time. That same fear, or hatred or guilt or shame you recognise in one of the characters. And suddenly you feel understood and validated.

What we read shapes us, our thoughts, emotions and their expression in real life. When we recognise the patterns of what hits us the most in a book, that’s a teeny weeny step closer to our own selves. Your review of a book may not express that revelation but you have marked the places which felt very real to you.

That’s why I pick quotes from books and add the highlighted passages in my reviews. That’s why I say why a book cover looks endearing, not because of the design elements but because it speaks to a part of me. I don’t want book reviews to be just useful to my readers, in helping them choose what to read next but in letting them decide if this is the book they would open their hearts to.

A review can be as beautiful as the book itself; a piece of art on its own.

When I talk of books I talk of myself too.

Share the link to a favourite book review that you or someone else has written.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Stepping Out of My Reading Comfort Zone



The best conversations are bookish. If you are stuck in a party (uh, what’s that, asks my post-pandemic brain) and know no one there, a good thing to do would be share what you are reading. All readers worth their salt would jump in with their own observations, opinions and recommendations.

Talking of recommendations, they are easy to listen to but difficult to digest. What if the other person recommends a genre that you dislike? What if it’s a book you are sure you wouldn’t like? Worse, you may not even like the cover (of course we judge a book by its cover but that’s another blog post in the making).

I am rather wary of others telling me what to read. Somehow, somewhere I feel that the other reader Must be my exact personality type for me to even think of listening to them. However, sometimes I let my judgement slip and do pick up books that others recommend and surprise, I like the book!

Midnight’s Library by Matt Haig is one such book. Left to my devices, I wouldn’t have picked it for a read even though I really like the author, his balanced and positive approach to all things life and universe. Alas, a lot of people on my TL had read it and done the requisite raving. In a soft moment, I started reading this story of infinite possibilities and infinite choices available to us through other lifetimes. And the best part? It’s all through a huge library, a sympathetic librarian and shelves of books that rush past you in a blur. It’s a lovely book, and now I am sure I wouldn’t want any other life than my own.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka was another such book. I wouldn’t have read it, but for the prodding of The Creative Soul Club. Upon reading it, I was baffled. Why was a person changing to a bug? Why was I reading about a maybe cockroach lying flat beneath the sofa? What was the point of it all? Also, what’s life? I also happened to like the book very much, in all honesty. It has stayed with me all this time and while every weird and repulsive bug brings the name Gregor Samsa to my mind, I can appreciate, even if a teeny bit, and mostly because of my book discussion gang, the ahem, underlying themes.

Coming up next is The Blue Umbrella by Ruskin Bond. I am aware he’s much loved and I have read a few of his short stories but that’s about it. I did like to stare at the gate of the school he was supposed to have attended for a few years. It was on my short route to the market, hidden away and accessible on one side by a mud track. Anyway, I liked to know about his life but not his books. Till I was stuck on letter ‘U’ for Blogchatter A2Z and anyone who’s participated in it knows what a pain the last few letters of the alphabet are. So, my kids had the book and all I had to do was to flip through the pages and write a blog post. Simple? Yes, the book is endearing in its simplicity. And having lived in the hills I know the innocence of the hill folks, their slow partaking of life and the contentment of a simple world. Boy, was I glad I read the book! The story feels like a comforting hug.

And the last one so far this year (again, I know which year it is because of the TBR Challenge, talking of which, have you checked it out yet?) Ok, the last book was a bunch of beautiful illustrations of The Horse, the Fox and the Mole. Wait, there’s a boy in it too. All the wisdom of the animals who mysteriously seem to talk, comfort, encourage the little boy is endearing. If you like to look at bold lines, both in drawings and in writing, this is the book for you.

Do you step out of your reading comfort zone often?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Curmudgeon Avenue: The House that Talks – to the readers

I don’t like to hoard books too much; I would rather buy them when I have the time and inclination to read.

Alas, digital reading has led me to download a large number of books. I suddenly feel that I have to get this book now, right now and what if the book is not available at this price in a few day’s time. My library is now bulging (the way something digital bulges, is all I can say in defence of this description).

There’s a book that I set my heart on, nearly a year ago. It had a house on the cover (always a pull for me) and best of all, the narrator of the book was the house! It had some weird residents with lots of stories of their lives and misdemeanors.

Also, the author of the book Samantha Henthorn told me (yes, I am bragging about knowing authors ;)) that the characters speak in a Manchester accent! This got me really excited because it sounded so different,though I had no idea of the unique words or sounds of the accent. Well, at least it would have a local sound and flavour.

I started reading Curmudgeon Avenue (Book One of the Terraced House Diaries). For many reasons, after reading a few pages about an elephant and a lorry driver, I had to let the book rest for a long while.

Sometimes you go through conflicting emotions. You so want to do something or read something and at the same time, you are sure you won’t be able to do justice by giving it your complete attention.

A few days ago, I finally found I wanted to pick it again and lo and behold, finished the book in 2 days flat!

What did I think about the book? Well, it’s sarcastic, funny and entertaining!

The book is a laugh riot, each character more outrageous than the other.
The sisters, Edna and Edith, in their seventies but with plenty of spunk, are funny, right from their clothes, to mannerisms to their beliefs. The sponging son, Ricky Ricketts is unbelievably thinking of his own self, the ex of one of the sisters and their present tenant Harold is ridiculous, Maurice, the would-be-murderer who puts anti-freeze in mint chocolate (that incidentally the cat eats) because he had been stood up once in his youth by one of the sisters is silly, and the policemen (they act more like hooligans) Sleeveless Steve and Psycho Steve are crazy. Mrs. Ali is the best of them all, the neighborhood busybody, swilling buckets of dirty mop water onto the street, just because it was a scene from a movie that had caught her fancy.

And of course, the situations are very funny to suit the characters. Edith constantly gets wooed by men Edna had dated when she was a young girl. The elder sister’s bossiness, the younger one’s docility, the cheekiness of the men in the book are just hilarious.

I did wish there was more from the house’s pov, because it’s very interesting to have the story narrated thus. Also I wanted some of the characters to have more of a story. Georgine Foote, the bossy woman dominated by her elderly and seemingly frail mother and Patchouli, the mom to the exotic girls could have had many more misadventures.

All in all, it turned out to be a fantastic read that is laugh-out-loud funny, with eccentric characters and outrageous situations that entertain you completely. The clever language that’s sometimes deadpan is a bonus.

And now I wish I had read it last year!

Have you read a book that had an inanimate narrator?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

The House by the Sea by Louise Douglas

The book title has 2 things that I absolutely am fascinated with. House and Sea. Not to mention the completely enticing book cover that shows a lovely house with a wrought iron gate that’s open a little bit as if inviting the reader in. And that’s how I chose to read it when I found it a few weeks back.

Edie is walking the dogs near the river when her friend calls to tell her that her mother-in-law Anna DeLuca is dead. She’s bitterly relieved and we learn of her estrangement not just with her mother-in-law but also her husband. We also learn of her son Daniel whom she lost many years ago and how she blames Anna for it.

It seems it’s the time to go to Sicily and claim and settle what Anna has left her – the family villa that Edie was supposed to have visited with child Daniel but never did. It also means she would have to work out the inheritance details with her husband Joe, leading to an awkward time that she absolutely wants to avoid.

However Edie turns up at Sicily and falls in love with the now-neglected but still beautiful house surrounded by verdant grounds, now overgrown, and the sea.

It’s the mood that Louise captures that kept me enthralled. The house of course is described so beautifully, from its architecture to its flora to its supposed ghosts.

The book has a little bit of a supernatural element, just a very little, enough to keep you feeling the charm and the magic of the place. There were times when I wondered what was I reading. Was it a ghost story, was it a romance, was it a murder mystery, was it supposed to be a thriller? There are elements of all of these and as I turned the pages, keeping pace with the unfolding story seemed the easiest thing to do. There’s no point obsessing over the genre or slotting the book into a particular type. That it is extremely well written and engrossing should be enough for the reader.

The handling of emotions and the way the transformation comes in Edie’s and Joe’s lives had me rooting for them all through. The house is a living creature of course, I too could feel the little graveyard, the ghosts of the generations gone by, the places where so many happy moments were spent, I haven’t had this connection with a house since I read and dreamt of Rebecca’s Manderley.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Breads and Breakfast by Shail Thosani: Book Review

Title: Breads and Breakfast
Author: Shail Thosani
Genre: Food, Cookbook
Format: Ebook

Blurb

Cooking a variety dish does not mean it has to be complicated and lengthy. The cookbook contains two sections, the first section is based on simple and easy to make recipes using breads (both brown and white) and the second section has very easy to make breakfast recipes. Each and every recipe has very simple and easy to follow steps and the outcome dish, be it using breads or from the breakfast section, all have very unique flavors.


About the Author

Shail is a homechef and loves to cook different dishes and also bakes cakes and breads. She is a lawyer by profession but that has never stopped her from pursuing her passion for cooking. You can subscribe to to her website https://alawyerskitchen.com and also follow her on instagram and Twitter under the name alawyerskitchen and also follow and like her page on facebook under the name alawyerskitchen.

Review

Breads intrigue me; they are very versatile and fillings and toppings can make the world of a difference to the final dish. The same goes for breakfast recipes. With so many kinds from all cuisines, there’s a lot that can be done to experiment and to explore new flavours.

Shail’s book is a delightful mix of recipes with much-loved staples introduced to dishes made with bread.

I tried the Double Cheese Bread Pizza with delightful results. It was easy to bake and the final dish very professional looking. Finding Focaccia was a woah moment as I had been wanting to bake it at home.

The recipes are easy and simple to follow and can bolster the confidence of a wannabe cook. The pictures are enough to tempt you and also reassure that these are real food pics clicked by the author and hence doable. The ingredients required are easily available in our kitchens or in nearby stores.

Each recipe has a short introduction that explains the dish, how it can be served and what it can be paired with.

Mumbai street food flavours, classic breads, pizza with a twist, cheesy breads, vegetarian omelette like dishes, pancakes without eggs and pancakes with mixed veggies, different kinds of idlis and breakfasts using ragi, the range is quite delectable.

Verdict

Simple and easy breakfast dishes or evening snacks, the book has a variety of recipes with very different flavours. A good book for beginners and those trying to add variety to their cooking.

This book is available for free download here.

The post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Xanadu by Harshita Nanda: Book Review

Title: Xanadu
Author: Harshita Nanda
Format: Ebook

Xanadu is a sensitive portrayal of the harsh realities and the sweet redemption following the life arc of 3 people; lonely and struggling and finding succour in their companionship.

Book Blurb

A young girl is living a simple life surrounded by nature and the love of her parents. An earthquake destroys her home and changes her life forever.

A young boy is struggling with the loss of his mother. As a reward for honesty, he gets a step up in life but has to leave behind all that is familiar.

An old lady lives alone, surrounded by memories and whispers of the past.

What is the link between the three?

Where is their Xanadu?

About the Author

Harshita Nanda is an avid reader and a lover of the written word. A chance win at a short story competition ignited the writing spark in her. Starting from book reviews, she moved on to writing short stories and dabbling in flash fiction. Xanadu is her first time attempting a novella.

The Story

Miss Anita, a vivacious, beautiful Anglo Indian, who has everything when it comes to material possessions and love, sees a turn of tides. The partition of India changes her world and opportunities. To her lonely existence comes Bhoomi, a young girl who has been uprooted from her home in the hills because of an earthquake that destroyed their home and took away her father. The child finds a kindly and maternal figure in Miss Anita as she navigates a hostile time with her relatives. Harish is the troubled and mischievous boy, whose father has brought him to the big town for the treatment of his wife who passes away.

Emotionally scarred, the three seek out each other’s company. But fate’s twists separates them as they go their ways in search of better lives. Will they be happy? Can they ever be reunited?

Review

Right from the first page, I was engrossed in the story that felt familiar in a way, for it spoke of the people I have seen growing up. The young children, their parents, their extended families and societal reactions, the insights of the author are commendable. 

The places, the hills, the villages and the towns where much of the story is set radiated a warmth. There is a depth to the detailing of the setting, no matter which the place is. I could feel at ease whether it was the village or the gardens of large houses, an army officer’s residence or even New York.

The characters in the book are very relatable. The protagonists have been sketched out so well; one can understand their thoughts and emotions and their life choices. Their struggles are unfortunate but I could understand all the situations.

The story arc is developed in an excellent way. Even though the story spans decades, you never lose touch of the emotional turmoil of the characters.

Verdict

Xanadu is a novella of beauty and emotional depth. Spanning lifetimes, decades and places, it’s a heartwarming story of ties that may not be familial but that bind and comfort.

The book is available for free download here.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

A2Z of Image Management by Swati Mathur: Book Review

Book Title: A2Z of Image Management
Author: Swati Mathur
Format: Ebook

A2Z of Image Management is a guide to understanding the impact physical appearance has on others and in garnering opportunities. It takes you through the subconscious signals your appearance and clothes give out and the way to manage these.

Before I started with the book I had the vague idea that ‘Clothes maketh a man’ but which clothes, what to wear when and how to have a wardrobe that serves my identity rather than it being the other way round was all unclear in my mind. I was guilty of thinking ‘appearance just happens’ but how wrong was I.

The blurb tells you that positive first impressions are important and perfectly doable. Presenting the right and authentic image is the way to personal and professional success. The table of contents lays out what to expect from the book beginning from everyday dressing to the zenith of fashion curve.

About the Author

Swati is a certified Image consultant, a trainer, employability and job coach, EQ coach and a Life coach. She believes in life-long learning and empowering the future generation with soft skills which are most critical in improving the probability of success.

Book Review

First up, the author explains what is image management and how can you create a brand by managing your appearance. This neatly lays out the premise of the book. It goes on to talk why clothes are a wearable art and how working on the styles, forms, texture, colour and accessories, you can express your authentic self leading to greater confidence and self-esteem.

As you read on, you learn to evaluate not only your body shape (with enough variations from the ideal, which is absolutely fine) but also the garment shape, the tints, tones and shades and elements of design. Swati reiterates that people ‘don’t have figure problems, but fitting problems’ which can easily be solved.

There’s a discussion on classic fits and pieces and trendy items and what should be the mix in a person’s wardrobe. There’s adequate talk about planning your wardrobe based on your needs which should be in harmony with your lifestyle and personal style.

How should we choose what to buy? What fits are good for a particular body type? Do accessories need to be chosen with regard to one’s face shape? You get the answers to these and more in the book. In addition, there are wardrobe strategies and skills needed for smart shopping that would be very helpful to the reader.

I was very struck by the fact that it is crucial to have a balance between similarity and variety to be able to create a brand.

Another thing I must point out is that this book is for both men and women. Usually, only women are perceived to take care of their appearance, clothes and makeup but image management is applicable to men as well.

The book is a good balance of presenting new concepts and information as well as making it practical enough for the reader to understand and apply. There are enough images to aid the flow and bring clarity.

The chapters are quite detailed, it is enjoyable to be learning something new and the penny drops when Swati puts forth examples of what is being explained.

Verdict

A2Z of Image Management goes beyond self-help genre to introduce the concept of managing your appearance along with practical guidelines on creating the desired impact.

The book has been published as part of #BlogchatterEBook Carnival and is available for free download for a limited time.

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

Ten questions I had when I read the book:

1. How bumbling, thick-headed can you get? It seems plenty, when you are a Wooster.


2. As an adult, can you be scared of your aunt(s)? Yes definitely, when they are as ferocious as Aunt Dahlia (don’t go by the gentle name).


3. Can your incompetence and general inability to understand the world be balanced ever? Of course, if you have a valent par excellence, ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’.


4. Can you have weirdly named friends who act even weirder, also having a super sentimental fiancée? Gussie Fink-Nottle firs the bill.


5. Why does a cow-creamer hold milk during an elaborate English tea? Conversely, how do you feel about putting cream in your tea or even coffee? Ugh? That’s why Bertie was assigned the task of ‘sneering’ at a cow-creamer to bring down its price sneakily. The things aunts asign us!


6. Do people seal helmets from constables merely to impress others? Yes, apparently it’s a thing.


7. Do valets and Butlers keep a record of their employers’ foibles? You bet they do. It’s called a club book. One needs courage to read honest appraisals of oneself from one’s supposedly devoted employee and confidante.


8. Imposters, cross connections, petty thievery, lying and unable to tell the girl that he cannot marry her because chivalry forbids it, how much more confusing and funnier could it get?


9. Can one do a satirical parody of those in power and get away without censorship? Yes in the last century, sometimes you could if you were clever enough to disguise people well.


10. Can a book published nearly a 100 years ago (published in 1938) still capture a reader’s interest? Of course, it’s considered one of P.G. Wodehouse’s best books to date.

If you have read this book or any other by P.G. Wodehouse, do you have any questions regarding the plots, themes and style?

All this month I am talking about books for #BlogchatterA2Z.