Books · Reviews

Murder at Moonlight Cafe and Other Stories

Murder at Moonlight Cafe and Other Stories is a collection of 11 fictional tales that are unique and offer us a variety of perspectives. Each of them narrate the story of characters who have almost nothing in common except for the very human emotions that are elicited from their experiences. There are stories about mythological figures, contemporary characters, fantastical beings etc.

To try and pick a few titles that were my favorite from the collection seems like a herculean task because they were all equally engaging and the storylines were unlike anything I’d read so far. Nevertheless, I highly recommend that you get to these stories first – Mariam’s Tears, Kalika, It Watched Me, Murder at Moonlight Cafe and Ace of Hearts.

Some of the themes you are bound to encounter are mythology, addiction, faith, paranoia, social media, asexuality and coping mechanisms. The author’s writing style strikes a good balance between the descriptive and the dialogue-driven. I couldn’t believe how mesmerized I was by the worlds she had created and how intriguing these plot points were.

A couple of times I was skeptical as to whether the author would be able to do justice to a certain plot because of the short story format. But every time, I was impressed by how she was able to pay sufficient attention to all the major aspects of storytelling in order to neatly wrap up a story in as little pages as required.

If you’re someone who likes a lot of continuity or fluidity in narrative styles, then you might find a couple of stories in this collection a little too fragmented. But I didn’t mind that at all; instead, I feel that it bound all the scenes, imperative to the story, together in a smooth fashion.

I know for a fact that I will not be forgetting these tales anytime soon, simply because of how refreshing and new they were. Highly recommend this collection to everyone!

★ ★ ★ ★.5

Books · Reviews

Once Upon A Curfew

As an Indian historical fiction, Once Upon A Curfew takes us back to the age of classic Bollywood films, references to which are made frequently in almost every chapter. Fans of Rajesh Khanna and Bollywood songs from the 70s would definitely be engaged while reading this novel.

It is the story of two sisters, Indu and Amita whose lives are embroiled in the patriarchal ways of society. When they inherit their grandmother’s house, Indu finally gets the opportunity to pave a path of liberty and empowerment for all women, young and old. Her desire to set up a library in this house is met with disbelief as her male relatives are convinced that such property could be put to better use. But Indu is not one to go down without a fight.

Two thirds of this novel had me hooked to the story because it was entertaining, I was shipping a potential couple so hard and Indu’s persistence made the story fast paced. I loved how much the author stresses on the importance of education and how she places the protagonist in context of the political scenario. Indu being raised in a family that is tied to the Congress government and her resolute faith in the female Prime Minister adds a whole other dynamic to the story.

Some elements of the book that deserve due attention are the depiction of the Emergency, the societal outlook on women pursuing education and careers, the Partition, freedom of press and arranged marriages. I think Srishti Chaudhary has done a great job integrating these into the plot. I was glad to read how the concept of arranged marriages is treated and the stance Indu’s family takes on it.

That said, towards the end of the book, the plot execution fails to keep up with the pace of the establishing chapters and I found myself becoming detached from Indu’s story. My only wish is that the last 6-7 chapters had been written in a more immersive manner. There are a couple of time leaps in the book and I didn’t mind them so much, but the way Rana and Indu’s equation changes bothered me a bit.

On the whole, Once Upon A Curfew is definitely worth reading because you get a glimpse into 1970s Delhi and how the socio-political circumstances drove people to make their own destiny.

★ ★.5

Books · Reviews

A Flutter in the Colony

Sandeep Ray’s historical fiction narrates the story of a young couple who make their way from newly-independent India to a town in Malaya. In a manner befitting the cadence of his writing, the author introduces us to the highly turbulent environments of Bengal and Malaya, as the respective regions grapple with communal tensions and the aftermath of being colonized by Britain.

The writing style is so fluid that with every chapter it sweeps you further and further into the embrace of the narrative. Although the political jargon is kept to a bare minimum and makes for comfortable reading, the novel very authentically depicts the way some non-native English speakers attempt to converse, by incorporating several Bengali and Malayan phrases into the dialogue. And that was my problem with the book. Many a times, I would have to take to Google in order to understand what a word or two means. But in the overall engrossing vibe of the novel, this didn’t bother me all that much.

Throughout the book, the main male character is referred to as “the young man” and initially, I didn’t understand the author’s motivation for leaving one of the primary characters without a name. But as I kept reading about the character’s role in Pre-Partition Bengal and the Malayan Emergency, I realized that it is because the author is not writing the story of one individual with a defined identity. Through that young man, Sandeep Ray voices the story of thousands of men and women who’ve stood against the Empire. The young man is in essence the ‘flutter in the colony’. This could very well just be my interpretation and not the actual reasoning, but that’s what I felt.

Maloti’s character has so many layers. I was glad to see her being indignant in the face of patriarchy, speaking her mind freely and being a supportive family member. Her equation with her husband is for the most part cordial with sporadic depictions of affection and other strong emotions. She blends in effortlessly even when compelled to mingle with people of different cultures.

I loved the way the chapters alternate between their lives in Calcutta and in Malaya. This helps us form a rich picture of their identity and back story in our minds. How domino effects work resulting from a single decision can all too clearly be gleaned from the way the story pans out. We get to read about religious clashes, corruption, tribes, Indian values, colonization and so much more. All in all, it was such a great experience reading this book. I did not want to set it down and finished reading most of it in one sitting. Highly recommend it!

★ ★ ★

Books · Reviews

Ayesha At Last

Uzma Jalaluddin’s YA fiction, Ayesha At Last,  borrows from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice only to reconstruct the whole narrative around a conservative Muslim society. Ayesha and Khalid’s story mirrors the quintessential struggles of a modern generation trying to grapple with the norms set by their families. While he is wont to do everything his mother asks of him, Ayesha’s immediate family is much more supportive of and respectful towards her They make each other’s acquaintance much in the way of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet – initial attractions buried by prejudice. But when a case of false identity gets out of hand, Ayesha and Khalid realize the cost of losing a loved one.

As consumers of mainstream media, we are fed a certain ideology about the nature of Islam as a religion. This novel undoes those trite notions by portraying characters who each practice a version of the religion that feels right to them. And in doing so, their identities stretch the boundaries of what is naturalized by media representation. Khalid’s disapproval of a young Muslim woman who frequents bars and performs stand up poetry only goes to show the indoctrination of regressive mindsets within a culture. On the other hand, Ayesha’s grandfather’s fondness for poetry and Shakespeare depict an intermingling of cultures that is frowned upon by orthodox communities.

The plot progresses in the usual way; the introduction of the characters is followed by minor conflicts. In an attempt to battle these minor conflicts, the main characters end up facing a major conflict. While I was constantly trying to draw parallels between this novel and P&P, it soon became apparent that Uzma Jalaluddin has tweaked quite a few details. And anyway, I realized that it’s best to enjoy reading Ayesha At Last as a solitary text without trying to form comparisons.

Khalid’s mother is a really infuriating character. And so is Hafsa. They’re utter disrespect for others, meddling behavior and lack of courtesy annoyed me to no end. In my opinion, Sheila is depicted as an emblem of bigotry. Through her, the author explores the themes of Islamophobia, workplace harassment and fraudulent behaviour. There are a fair share of stereotypes and clichés in the book, but they didn’t have so much emphasis as to become problematic.

I think this title is definitely worth a read! Especially if you are interested in novels composed of family drama.

★ ★ ★.5

Books · Reviews

The Unhoneymooners

Christina Lauren’s The Unhoneymooners reads like a warm blanket on a rainy day. It is packed with laugh-out-loud humor, relatable characters and a ship you can’t help rooting for.

Olive and Ethan can barely stand to be in the same room as the other. But when their siblings’ wedding goes awry and the two are faced with the chance to go on an all-paid honeymoon, they decide to bear with each other’s presence for the sake of a much-needed vacation.

This novel filled me with such absolute joy! Right from the get-go I was laughing and grinning cause of the expertly imbued comedy. If this is any indication of Christina Lauren’s writing style, I am sold. What makes their writing more hilarious is the effortless and subtle nature of the humor quotient. It’s almost as if the authors don’t intend for something to be funny, but because of the straightforward depiction of people and situations, the scenes automatically elicit a smile from the reader. The narrative is colloquial and has some really engaging dialogues.

Truth be told, the plot isn’t out-of-this-world unique. But its execution is what takes the cake. There are quite a few popular tropes like enemies turning to lovers, siblings having opposite personalities, fake relationship, cheating male characters etc. And ideally, I wouldn’t pick up a book with such tropes, but I’m so glad that I didn’t pass up on reading this one. Olive’s habit of making lists to sort through her feelings is an interesting component and so this book is written in an epistolary format with lists and text messages interspersed in scenes.

While some of the characters possess almost stereotypical identities, there are others that are refreshingly realistic. Olive’s sister, Ami has a knack for winning contests and seldom has to spend her own money on anything. She prefers to save money where possible. I related so much to this! I was happy to read about Olive, as a protagonist, being portrayed as someone who doesn’t have a size zero figure. There are times when she “regrets eating all those donuts” but there are also moments when she is totally comfortable in her own skin. And this was really inspiring.

There’s a whole lot of sass, drama and misunderstandings. I just wanted to reach into the pages and set things right so that all of these characters wouldn’t be hurting. The resolution of the final conflict doesn’t occur in the way I’d wanted it to. I felt that those who were in the wrong didn’t really account for their actions. But on the whole, I’m fine with the way the novel ends because of all the warm, fuzzy feels that go with the writing.

I have a feeling (a strong one) that I’m going to re-read this real soon. And I’ve never re-read a rom-com, contemporary novel in my life! So that’s saying something.

★ ★ ★ ★ .5

Books · Reviews

The Good Thieves

In my opinion, Katherine Rundell has now clearly established her brand as a children’s adventure novelist. Three of her novels that I’ve read till date share a similar thread of kids embarking on a quest of some sort, often beyond the knowledge of the parents. The Good Thieves is her newest release and doesn’t fail to grab our attention. This time, through the voice of a young girl named Vita, we read about family bonds, determination, fight for justice and what it means to be brave.

When Vita’s ancestral home is taken away from her grandfather by means of deception, she assumes the responsibility to plan a heist and retrieve the family’s jewels. But she’s not alone! Her wit and efforts enable her to persuade three acquaintances to join her in this mission. It is appalling the nonchalance with which Vita, a mere child, goes about setting things right, unsupervised in a foreign land.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is that it is set in New York and is filled to the brim with twists and turns. That said, it is the kind of read where you shouldn’t put too much thought into the workings of the plot points because then it wouldn’t be as convincing. The fact that a bunch of kids are scurrying about, wrecking havoc in the lives of the goons gives this novel a comical undertone. The author’s writing style is not over the top or too descriptive. While the narration is heavy on action scenes, we get the occasional glimpses of what New York looked like then.

Vita’s character is sketched to be full of spunk and zeal. She is resourceful in the sense that she makes the best of what’s available. Some of her character traits were quite surprising. And the way in which she persuades Silk, Arkady and Samuel to accompany her speaks volumes about how steadfast she is. They each possess interesting attributes that make the plot more entertaining.

The pace of the novel is surely an added bonus. You can finish the whole thing in one sitting. Parts of it are unpredictable, but for some reason, the story didn’t thrill me as much as the author’s other works have. Don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy reading the book. It’s just that in the overall experience of reading, it felt like something was missing.

To conclude, I’d say that you should definitely give it a try. Katherine Rundell’s writing has never disappointed me.

★ ★ ★

Books · Reviews

With The Fire On High

Emoni Santiago has a lot to work for – her school grades, her 3 year-old daughter, helping her grandma run the house and maintaining a cordial relation with the father of her child. But despite the wearisome nature of her days, there is one thing that helps soothe all her worries. Emoni’s very soul speaks the culinary language, prompting her to take to the kitchen every time there’s something on her mind. Now that an opportunity has come her way to go on a trip and display her talents as a chef, would her obligations permit her to be true to herself?

Elizabeth Acevedo preserves the richness of Emoni’s culture and story through the dialogues and analogies in this novel. The plot consists of some common themes like teen pregnancy, financial deprivation, parental negligence, but what makes this novel memorable is the heartfelt way in which the story has been told. Emoni’s voice is so unabashed and uplifting. There is no sense of regret about the state of affairs in her life and she takes everything that comes her way in good stride.

Emoni and her abuela (grandma) are so fiercely protective of their family. They work together to make each other’s lives better. I was surprised to read about how mature Emoni is, considering the fact that she is a 17 year old, who never even got to live her childhood properly, what with her father being MIA and she getting pregnant at an early age. But that doesn’t deter her from being a responsible mother and a considerate granddaughter.

I was kind of on the fence about Malachi being introduced as the typical good-looking guy, who makes the protagonist laugh and gets into her good graces. I wasn’t sure whether I’d like the insta-love. But suffice it to say that Malachi’s character has been sketched as quite the gentleman, with a good upbringing. And ultimately, you can’t deny that he plays a positive role in Emoni’s life and brings a sense of playfulness to the story.

Interspersed with Emoni’s own recipes, With The Fire On High is every budding chef’s dream. One of the things I appreciated about the storytelling is that unlike other novels, the protagonist, despite being talented, doesn’t have it easy. We are not reading a story about Emoni’s guaranteed success. There are moments in the book when we don’t even know if she is going to get a happy ending or not. This unpredictability coupled with the conflicts that Emoni faces kept up the pace of the novel and I was glued to it.

On the whole, I LOVED reading this recent release by Elizabeth Acevedo. I know that I’m now going to pick up everything the author ever writes, because her writing is so filled with life, that it has the ability to sweep you off your feet. This is easily one of my top reads of 2019, so I can only hope that you will not miss out on the chance to read it.

★ ★ ★ .5

Books · Reviews

City of Girls

City of Girls, penned by Elizabeth Gilbert, is a wholly satisfying novel that encapsulates the stories of women who set themselves apart in society by way of exercising their individuality and ambition.

When 19 year old Vivian Morris gets sent to New York City to live with her aunt, she is enveloped by the culture of the land and begins to discover herself anew. At her Aunt Peg’s theatre company, young Vivvie realizes that her skills are much required and she fills the role of costume designer. But as this spirited woman gives in to her desires, she finds herself mired in scandal.

Try as I might, I couldn’t think of another novel with a better representation of women, the need for them to be unapologetic about their passions, and their ability to be everything other than mere labels or categories. Gilbert’s intimate writing style stands out in this mesmerizing narrative about city life, lust, show biz, war and the constant nature of change.

Written in the form of a letter recounting the events of Vivian’s life, City of Girls features characters who are as refreshingly realistic as the conflicts they face. There is Anthony Roccella who enters the stage as a handsome, cocky actor, but doesn’t really play a lasting role in the grand scheme of things. Aunt Peg is depicted as the deviant whose calm demeanor and encouragement gave Vivian a direction in life. Arthur Watson’s clumsy and “good for nothing” characterization does add some humor to the play that is staged, but it would’ve been a bit more convincing if he hadn’t been shown as a total dolt.

More than a majority of the book is about Vivian in her 20s. And so, those scenes were full of frolic and fast paced scenarios. The third last section of the book goes through the next 60 or so years of her life. It may seem rushed, but the author pays attention to the necessary milestones and so, I didn’t have a problem with it. The only thing I wish is that we had gotten a scene with Nathan. It would’ve helped form a picture of his bond with Vivian and Marjorie. The following are a couple of aspects of the novel that earned major brownie points:

  • The fact that it can be fun and entertaining, while also exploring serious themes.
  • An awe-inducing portrayal of 1940s NYC.
  • A series of female characters who build each other up and are successful in their own domains.
  • There is a play being staged and we get to read some parts of it (It is a hoot!).
  • Vivian doesn’t play the blame game, but rises to the occasion and learns from her mistakes.
  • A touching glance at the impact of WW2.

There is so much more about the book that I would like to address, but for the sake of keeping this review spoiler free, I’m going to refrain from doing that. All I’m going to say is that this one’s definitely worth reading. So give it a try!

★ ★ ★ .25

Thank you Bloomsbury India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

Books · Reviews

The Near Witch

In the town of Near, there are no strangers. The resident families have been there through it all. So when the arrival of a mysterious boy precedes the gradual disappearances of the children in the town, the people of Near call for retribution. Although Lexi spied this stranger from her window, becoming one with the night and floating away with the wind, she is certain that he is not to be blamed. And so, despite her uncle’s warnings and at the risk of invoking the townsfolk’s wrath, she sets out to find him before the hunting party can get to him.

I honestly do not know how to do full justice to this book by merely pointing out everything that is good about it. So I’m going to preface my review by saying that YOU MUST MUST READ THE NEAR WITCH.

I’ve begun to pick up on the kind of vibes V.E Schwab creates in her books and I simply love it! This one is haunting and action-packed. It had the sense of a folktale being narrated to a child and I found myself wanting to remain immersed in this world long after the story had ended. The author’s writing is mesmerizing, detailing only that which is essential for us to visualize the story. Her world building wins all the brownie points. The Near landscape, the lifestyle of the people, the elements of nature – adds a lot of dimension to the plot execution.

On the surface, this novel is pretty much like your quintessential story about good vs evil. But what I particularly appreciated about it is the way in which it highlights a lot of themes prevalent in our world today. In the ostracization of the Thorne sisters, I saw the bigots of our society. In the admonishing of Lexi, I saw people who were afraid to let women make their own decisions. In pining the disappearances of the children on Cole, you get a glimpse of power-mongers and the extent of their cowardice.

Reading a lot of thrillers and mysteries has made me readily suspicious about characters in every book. So I cooked up all kinds of theories about what was happening to the children, why Cole has come to this town all of a sudden etc. But I was happy to realize that for a good chunk of the novel, we were not going to be able to pin-point the ending. I liked that unpredictability. The following are some other aspects of the book that I appreciated:

  • The inclusion of folk songs and sayings to really cement the world-building and the culture of Near.
  • Lexi’s relationship with her sister, Wren, made me weep with joy. They have such a loving bond.
  • The not-so-exaggerated depiction of witches. For a change, I liked the subtle and realistic magic that was portrayed.

The references that are made to Lexi’s father and how he has helped shape her personality adds a lot of value to her character and affirms the fact that Lexi is not a rebel just for the sake of being one. She was raised differently by her father. One thing I didn’t like about the book is how a love interest gets passed on to another character when he realizes that he has no chance with Lexi.

Overall, this was such a fantastic read! It has easily become one of my top reads of 2019. I would recommend it to everyone who enjoys the fantasy genre.

★ ★ ★ .5

Thank you Bloomsbury India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

Books · Reviews

Small Days and Nights

As a fictional novel that dwells on topics of family, politics and health, Small Days and Nights tells the story of Grace, an Indian-Italian woman whose life takes an unexpected turn. When news of her mother’s demise reaches her in US, she makes her way to her childhood home in Pondicherry to perform the last rites. Grappling with a failed marriage, Grace must also come to terms with the fact that for a large chunk of her life, her parents hid the truth about her having a sister.

Surprisingly enough, reading this book felt akin to what the title suggests. Grace’s story is shared with us in such a fleeting manner that the many scenes don’t even settle in our minds before we are whisked off to another time, another place. The back and forth shuffling took away from my enjoyment of the book. Usually, I like novels that don’t follow a chronological pattern of storytelling, but I felt that the premise of the novel and the author’s writing style did not gel well with this flashback style narrative.

That is not to say that the book isn’t well written. Tishani Doshi clearly has a very good grasp of the language and her lyrical writing brings out the beauty in the environment as well as human nature. The imageries she puts together, her aesthetically drawn out sentences – they all made me aspire to be a better writer. It’s just that while reading this book, I felt like some kind of continuity in the scenes would’ve helped me digest the story much better.

Grace is someone whose need for affiliation surfaces in times of rare social occasions. Even though she is often surrounded by people like her neighbors and her mother’s friends, you come to understand how lonely she truly feels. Because Grace finds herself wanting to take care of her sister, Lucia, we get to read about a character having Down Syndrome. I feel that the author strikes a good balance between exploring the portrayal of this disorder in a respectful, sensitive manner while also being realistic. Even though Grace grows attached to her sister, there are moments when she is frustrated by her inability to get through to Lucia.

I liked how we are transported to a couple of different locations like Italy and Paramankeni as we follow various phases of Grace’s life. It helped me form an idea about the kind of person she would be.

Overall, this book definitely had its enjoyable parts and a lot of the appeal, for me, was in the writing. But I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped to. If you feel like you’d be interested in the plot, you should give it a try.

★ ★ ★

Thank you Bloomsbury India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.