Reflecting back on my January reads for the past 2-3 years I realised that I don’t pick easy books. I usually have tomes with unfamiliar tropes, complex storytelling and non-linear narratives as my way to gear up for the year ahead.
However, this year bookstagram wove its magic and I found myself looking at the impossibly lovely book cover of The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches as a read in one of the online book clubs. Thanks, Resh! And I couldn’t resist reading about witches and irregular at that!
The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna is about witches, magic, love and familial relations that the characters find in the unlikeliest of places.
The author started writing the book a few months into the pandemic. I can understand the feeling of escapism and the need to find unconditional love and acceptance and everything heartwarming.
A welcoming house by the sea, lovely gardens, greenhouses, a friendly golden retriever, a bright, sunny-smiled witch, adorable little girls who can do magic, a sententious old man with a wicked sense of humour, a fussing-over-you housekeeper, a gentle and sweet gardener, a scowling-but-heart-of-gold librarian, The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches manages to have all these elements so that the book is like a hug, cosy and nice.
Nealy no one here has a family. We meet orphans (all witches are, by virtue of a spell gone wrong), people seeking refuge outside abusive marriage, dysfunctional families, battling childhood trauma, having trust issues. But there’s no dark cloud on the horizon. Not even dead bodies or skeletons evoke horror. There’s so much love from strangers, adopted families and in the unlikeliest of places that this world becomes your favourite place to live in.
You are so entranced by everything that makes you happy and loved that you don’t mind the lack of conflict, rather the lack of serious conflict in the story. The only thing I can say that’s not warm and glowing about the book is that the disasters, the difficult circumstances are somehow glossed over, the obstacles fall too easily and the conflicts resolved too conveniently. However I wasn’t going to let that come in the way of my enjoyment.
I would recommend this book to everyone, if they want to just lose themselves in the world of what-can-be, rather than thinking can-it-be-possible.
The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
I was prodded into buying this book by my sister, who is very definitely an adult. The book is marketed for children and my first read (I have a feeling there are going to be re reads) confirms this.
Did I enjoy it? I can’t say a definite yes and I cannot give it a thumbs down either.
If you haven’t watched the series, A Series of Unfortunate Events or read this book or the others, then read on. If you have, I am sure you have your own strong opinions and let me know those in comments.
For starters, the book and series name is abominable and I believe that’s part of the attraction. Ditto for the book cover. The guy looks really evil.
The blurb has this warning that there’s nothing but unpleasantness in the book and that’s quite right when you look at the storyline.
However, and here’s the part that’s got you curious, the book has a Roald Dahl feel (a bit, not imitation though). The author name, Lemony Snicket looks like it’s made up and yes, Daniel Handler has done that. It also hints at fun things and an intelligent way of making up the story.
The book and the series is about three children who discover their parents are dead with their mansion burnt down. Thus begins their saga, of misadventures, nay, misfortune mostly and their attempts at influencing the outcome of these events. They are shuttled off to the home of the executor of the parents’ will (more like an executioner, as the eldest child Violet thinks) and later to a very very distant relative, the evil Count Olaf, an actor by trade and greedy at heart. He wants the Baudelaire fortune at any cost (here it refers to the surname of the surviving children) and the story turns sinister (it seemed it was only for the adult in me; my children were unfazed and loved all the twists and turns).
I quite liked the way Lemony Snicket kept telling the meanings and context of words. Also interesting were the periodic warnings of more bad things coming up.
I might not have found the book magical but I cannot say with certainity that I would not read the next one. Sometimes, you just need time to let something grow on you.
Bending Over Backwards by Carlo Pizzati
Bending over Backwards is a memoir and a travelogue, of places and experiences that are literal as well as of spiritual significance. It’s also an exploration of the significance of technology in a spiritual quest and whether we can justify its use.
The book starts with the mention of a backache, chronic and all-pervading. It is for a cure that the journeys and fascinating experiences come about, ending in India.
Being an Indian, reading about India from a foreigner’s perspective seemed like an incomplete experience at best, whenever I did read such an account.
Though, a disclaimer here that Bending Over Backwards is not an India-centric experience only. In fact, the author’s journeys and esoteric cure seeking had me enthralled.
It’s quite entertaining to see different places, right from Italy to US to Argentina to India. As the writer gets on flights for yet another stop on his search for a cure, there’s curious stuff happening. We meet aura readers, to medical professionals to meditators, yoga practitioners, past life regression, exorcism, trance-dance therapy, dubious gadgets to inject credibility into esoteric practices, we see it all.
Carlo Pizzati’s writing has a luminescent quality, it illuminates the most banal, simple acts. There’s no pretension, no convoluted facts, things are put down as they are, perhaps it’s his journalistic experience that helps him write about life in a factual manner.
There’s humour in the way situations are recorded, a non-judgemental observation that brings forth how ridiculous something can be.
As a reader, you can see the journey, not just the physical aspect but spiritual as well, as his learnings deepen and become wiser.
In praise of the cover, the art is very typically Indian, quirky and bright and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to read the book.
The very Indian experiences of Ashtang yoga, of Ayurveda, of meditation, of bhajans, satsang, ashrams and gurus, even of the so-called chaos (for me it’s life as usual) and richness of daily life were not the first draws for me. In fact, the way the book distills these experiences and the completely unpretentious way the author moves from one quest to the next is mesmerising.
In the end, I really did not care if the author had his answers, in fact, they were a faithful reproduction of the conversations he had with various learned men and their views but whether he was closer to a satisfactory explanation, I am not sure.
While the author periodically wondered if he was being ridiculous in searching out answers in a non-traditional way that would not appeal to rationalists, I could only read in wonder as I know the leap of faith it takes to move from the concrete world of rationale to something undefined and even scoffed at as being pseudo science or pop psychology.
Reading this book was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a refreshing read, a breath of fresh air and voice, with subtle wit that underlies the quest for answers and cure.
A History of Objects by Carlo Pizzati: Book Review
Title: A History of Objects
Author: Carlo Pizzati
Genre: Short Stories
Publisher: Harper Collins
Are objects merely inanimate things, sitting around us, a witness to our lives, our exhilarations and tribulations? Or do they play a part in the events, precipitating conflict, resolving conundrums, pushing us to explore new paths?
In ‘A History of Objects‘, things may not be pivotal in bringing about change, but they certainly allude to differing perceptions and evolving situations.
It is a collection of short stories, of diverse people and places, that span decades and lifetimes of protagonists. Many of these are open-ended, for the reader to imagine how things turn out.
About the Book
The book opens with a wonderful premise, of the narrator losing objects, or rather his stories of them through another object that has a great hold over us — a hard drive. And thus begins the book of many delightful tales, delving deep into families and people’s lifestyles, their beliefs, aspirations and fears.
There are many bits and pieces from these stories that felt viscerally ‘right’, right from our vices and failings to our affectations while navigating confusing circumstances.
While The Coconut Scraper makes fun of artistic pretensions, The Portrait deifies art, bestowing it a kind of prescience.
The Sweater digs through a family history, uncovering deep rooted prejudices around the color of skin. The theft of the sweater is presented through the eyes of the thief and you are convinced of the inevitability of it ending up with her.
The Mask brings into sharp focus the pandemic and everything we have collectively been through in the past 2 years. I loved the way it ended, not knowing if someone were infected or not, because we all felt doomed in either case.
The Leash is a little funny in its treatment of the characters and their lifestyle, even though the psychological manipulation in the story is tragic.
The Jade Stone is relatable; it’s what I see around me today – the ambition, the lack of understanding and dare I say it, the impermanence of relationships.
The Smartphone is very contemporary, very apt, very true. The story of a couple seemingly on a paradisical farm who are in fact trapped because of social media, is just a few degrees away from the truth we all face.
The VHS tape is so innocuous and chilling in its possibilities of a gun hidden and found by someone vulnerable.
The Bench, oh dear, it’s so clever, it’s so right, its so bang-on, not just about literary festivals but about sexism.
Reading these stories felt comforting for their excellent observations, the perfect prose, the slight detachment from the characters, yet diving deep into life through their stories.
You can buy the book here.
This review is powered by Blogchatter Book Review Program.
George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl
My younger one has raved about this book ever since he read it and trying to get me to read too. One of the reasons was that I refused to listen to the story and the dialogues, since I had already had an earful from ‘The Witches’ (going by the memorised passages, it looks like a wondrously delightful read).
While I was in the transition period, having finished one book and looking for the next one, I was given George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl by the kiddos. It’s fun, fun, fun.
A little story exposition here: little George, 8 years old is left alone for the day and asked to take care of his grumpy grandma. I was blessed with sweet, loving grandmothers, but this grandma in the book is an absolute bulky, cheerless, bossy and made me chuckle all through. Because grandma is such a pain and because she constantly belittles George, misguiding him (which is apparent even to a child) and making him afraid of her supposed witch powers (though it is George who gets lucky with the magic after all) that the boy decides to take matters in his own hands and brew her a medicine that will — if not cure her, definitely do something to shake her up.
He goes around the house collecting every substance that’s runny or powdery or gooey to make a concoction (frankly I shuddered at the stuff he put in, even my non-judgemental, non-motherly self). Finally, after a boil and a stir, grandma gets to taste the medicine with hilarious effects.
All through the book, I was super worried about George’s parents getting back and going all ballistic about the stuff he used up, right from his mom’s toiletries to the veterinary medicines but Roald Dahl being who he is, Mr Kranky (pops) lives the idea and wants to take it further.
No more spoilers but this is a really entertaining book. A Roald Dahl classic, but it for your kid and yourself.
This post is part of BlogchatterA2Z.
Missing, Presumed Dead by Kiran Manral
Missing, Presumed Dead by Kiran Manral can very easily be a treatise on marriage and mental illness. Instead, it’s one step ahead, a thriller that builds the suspense and the distrust in your heart slowly, bringing it to a menacing level that chills the reader.
The book begins with the description of quiet domesticity, children who are adored, a serene hill town and a placid pace of life. However, the peace is disturbed by the afternoon doorbell, the arrival of a strikingly similar-in-looks half-sister and the incessant rain and storm.
Soon, peace gives way to chaos as Aisha peels back the layers of her memories and her present life. Her marriage has been fractured for some time, she battles her mental demons, she is living with an unsupportive spouse, a teenaged daughter who shows signs of an eating disorder and through it all, Heer arrives, the person Aisha has abhorred for years.
In a matter of days, Aisha disappears and she is declared missing, presumed dead. But the reader is privy to Aisha’s story. For the next few days, as she ostensibly takes back control of her life but is actually sliding away from reality, the mystery gets deeper.
Who is right, who is good, who has ulterior motives, is there an unreliable narrator, are questions that the reader grapples with.
In places, the prose becomes almost poetic and wise as the story moves along. It is a beautiful delving into marriage and relationships as also into the dark recesses of a person’s mind. The last part is surprising, moving swiftly into the realm of betrayal and avarice.
Read the book for a good storyline and exploration of the nature of relationships. The mental health angle is deeply researched and sensitively handled.
This post is part of BlogchatterA2Z.
Reading in 2022 and Eating Wasps
Reading wise my year started in a weird way. I was supposed to read an already-chosen book but I don’t recall how I fell off the reading bandwagon. It could have been work or some other stress?
And after a few days began the deliberation of picking a book. I wanted something symbolic to begin the year’s reading with. Something bold, And fresh and new and something I was interested in reading. I thought about and rejected many genres. I looked at books and put them back. Where was the book that would inspire me? And then I came to scroll through books available in Kindle Unlimited. After 2.5 days of feeling despondent at not getting the perfect read and even looking up authors I had read 2 decades earlier, I found Anita Nair’s books.
There was something morbidly fascinating about Anita Nair’s ‘Eating Wasps’. Of course, thinking about eating an actual wasp felt distasteful. And wasps are supposed to be vicious creatures. However, a few quick looks at the blurb and reviews and I knew I would like to read this book.
What’s the book about?
A friend asked me and I said it’s about women and their lives. Sounds succinct and overly simplistic but that’s what it is.
Sreelakshmi died by suicide in the 1960s. A respected woman, lecturer, zoologist, and celebrated writer, her death sent shock waves in the town she lived. The mystery was never solved and Sreelakshmi lived on, as a ghost, closed inside a little pen case, and hidden in a secret compartment in an almirah. What happened to her and the course of events that led to her death start unraveling nearly half a century later when a little girl unsuspectingly sets the ghost of Sreelakshmi free from its resting place.
As only ghosts can, Sreelakshmi could know the life stories of the people, women in fact, who picked up the bone in which she still resided.
Through the book, we meet many women, from Urvashi to Maya to Najma, who are strong, successful in their own right, navigating life on their own terms, most of the time.
It is in telling the stories of these women and their tenuous brushing-past Sreelakshmi’s ‘non-existence’ that the narrative of the book is woven.
To say that the book focuses on the trials and tribulations of women, in the past and now in the modern world would not be incorrect. At times, it is a magnificent ring-side view of the complex lives and desires of women everywhere.
There are so many moments that grabbed me. Sreelakshmi, self-assured, who could conquer every challenge, succumbed to love and desire, things she had stayed away from, all her life. Urvashi, successful with a capital S, feeling disillusioned with life and afraid when she is stalked. Pussy-mouth, pushed into hiding because of her ignominy on the internet. Maya, fighting valiantly for her son and happiness, nearly succumbing to hopelessness. There are so many women, one after the other, with their ordinary lives and their extraordinary courage. Mothers, sisters, daughters, Anita Nair examines them from the lens of relationships and their inner compass.
Dating apps, viral videos on the internet, stalking, child abuse, antagonistic behaviour within families, acid attacks, patriarchy, the themes are varied and perfectly woven in.
Thought provoking of course and awakening if-onlys and what-ifs in my mind, this was a powerful read from a mighty pen.
Young Blood by Chandrima Das: Book Review
Horror genre depends on either spectacular sound effects, gruesome visuals or a fear that stalks the victim. Young Blood employs all of these and comes out an entertainer that scares, engages and provokes the reader to contemplate.
Bored roommates use a planchette to contact a legendary ghost that haunts Pune University. Will she answer?
Is the abandoned Khairatabad Science College in Hyderabad really haunted? A gang of students break inside to investigate.
Nirav and Pavi love each other . . . most of the time. Will exploring a forbidden place inside IIT Kharagpur bring them closer?
From strange sightings to urban legends, from haunted buildings to not-so-friendly ghosts, colleges in India have their fair share of spine-tingling tales, be it Kasturba Medical College in Manipal, St. Bede’s College in Shimla or Delhi University. Young Blood is a collection of ten tales that reimagine college urban legends and true first-person accounts, that promises to terrify even die-hard fans of horror.
About the Author
Chandrima Das has a B.Tech in Computer Science from NIT Durgapur and an MBA from IIM Calcutta. After a decade-long career in management consulting, she followed her passion for writing. Her digital debut The Talking Dead was a bestseller in the horror category. She’s performed live at storytelling events with Tall Tales and Kommune, and was published in The Best Of Tall Tales.
When do we encounter ghost stories and rumours of hauntings? For most of us, it is during our later school years or colleges. The stories are told and retold in peer groups, informal cliques, carried on from batch to batch.
In India, many colleges have sprawling campuses, housed in British era buildings, with an atmosphere that lends to mystery. Add to this setting the youngsters, an element of exploration, of identity and relationships, the new-found freedom or the pressure to perform well because studying in a prestigious college is a culmination of their family’s dreams. The emotions that characterize youth are the base point of many stories as are the societal issues.
In Young Blood, horror is not merely the paranormal, it is also the normalised expectations and thinly veiled manipulative behaviour that our society condones.
The stories vary in location, setting and style. There are similar elements to the hauntings and horror episodes, the way the air goes still or cold, bodies that are at unnatural angles, shadows that appear or congregate, voices that only the protagonists can hear, wind and rain and full moon nights that contribute to the spooky environment. And yet, the horror isn’t only external. It stems from a person’s psyche, his trauma, his fears and anxieties and even societal expectations that exact a price from the individual.
After reading each story, I eagerly flipped to the back of the book to read the author notes. She has explained the lore surrounding a particular place, how she reimagined and fictionalised it and what were the main influences for that particular story. It was as close to a conversation with the author as could be. Including these notes is a wonderful touch.
In Good Girls, Bad Girls, there’s a hint of a paranormal sighting but the real horror arises from the threat of stalking and violence right in a ladies hostel. Combined with internalised patriarchal norms that women adhere to, it lends insecurity even in places they are supposed to be safe. I quite liked this one, because of the way it hits the message home.
The Sacrifice is notable for the characters, the young and curious Paul, and the wordly Roni with special powers. The interaction between the two, the testing of ground, the conflict of religion and faith, is very interesting, as is the mirroring of the political situation in Manipal.
Challenge Accepted is perhaps the most recognisable kind of horror story, mainly because the trope of a haunted building has been covered rather widely. But the story works well and is a good way to begin the book with.
I read Pen for Your Thoughts for St. Bede’s and Shimla, a place where I have spent many years. I know the icy winds, the slippery slopes, the looming pine trees and what they do to a terrified mind.
The Inner Door captured racism and an undercurrent of mistrust among students from different geographical areas very well.
The Benefits of Doubt uses vernacular to strike the terror home in the precincts of the hallowed IIT Kharagpur.
Ghost of a Chance is heartbreaking, as it focuses on student suicides over the years in IITs. Again, what makes the story stick to your mind is the exploration of themes like mental health and parental pressure.
Young Blood by Chandrima Das is an engaging set of stories, relatable, believable and racy. A must-read for horror genre afficinados.
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
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.