Book review – Midnight by Jacqueline Wilson

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I found Midnight by Jacqueline Wilson in the book fair and promptly grabbed it. The book was on my list of books (and author) to explore though I am well past the age the book is intended for. What can I say my inner child/teen continues to live on. I have a few other books by her too but this was the one that beckoned me. You know how it is. Some books you have had for ages but they sit on shelves for eons before they get read and a new book catches your eye and gets instantly picked up (I can almost hear all the old books grumble at the newcomer who made it with the least sweat. Unfair life is even books know that!). I can never understand how the timing works. I guess our subconscious knows what it wants at a certain point in life and goes for it.

Violet is naive (annoyingly so!) for a 13 year old. The book was published in 2003 and that’s got something to do with it, I think. It was the time when cellphones weren’t ubiquitous yet and people still wrote letters to authors instead of stalking them or talking about/to them online. Violet adores reclusive author Casper Dream, the author of the beautifully illustrated fairy books and writes to him regularly. She loves the fictitious universe created by him. She draws inspiration from his books and sews fairy dolls.  As you can see she isn’t your boisterous teen but quiet and artistic. Midnight offers interesting insights into the mind of a writer and on creating imaginary worlds which appealed to me greatly.

Violet has two ‘friends’ but she can’t identify with them. Whereas her brother Will is good looking and the entire school thinks he is cool. She looks up to him and adores him in spite of his snide comments and rudeness. Violet and Will are only a few years apart. It is apparent he cares for Violet but he never let’s a chance to take the Mickey out of her go.

Their father doesn’t like Will’s choices, and he in turn is constantly at loggerheads with him. We see Will after he knows a distrubing secret so there could be something to Will’s recklessness. Will is an intriguing character but I was always wary of him. Their mother is a docile woman and allows her husband to run roughshod over her. He’s taken for granted that his wife will do her job, regardless of how he treats her.

Violet’s life changes when the new girl in the school, Jasmine, who cares two hoots about fitting in, takes a shine to her. She cannot believe her luck. She adores everything about Jasmine – her spirit, her house and her family. Best friends fall in love with each other. It is an intense little place and I know that space well. Violet is an oddball whereas Jasmine is a popular kid. Is Jasmine truly her friend or something else is going on?

As I read I felt uneasy about certain things and I can hazard a guess as to how my teenage self would have reacted. The writing is good and the author is magnificent at building an atmosphere. Though at the heart of the story is Violet, a girl obsessed with fairies and fairy stories and the author who writes them, it’s not for younger readers. People expecting fantasy would be disappointed. This is as real as it gets for the intended age group!  I thought it was clever how subtly the  author showed bitter realities of the world which won’t affect younger readers but older readers will see it for what it is.

I like the quirky illustrations by Nick Sharratt which match the dark tone of the book.

Continue reading “Book review – Midnight by Jacqueline Wilson”

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Book review – I Quit! What Now?

Meet Nimisha, the protagonist of Zarreen Khan’s I Quit! What Now? She is a corporate drone (think Ranbir’s character in Tamasha except wittier) and works so hard at her job that she hasn’t had a weekend to herself in a long time. Sounds familiar? She hates her job and the daily grind that comes with the territory. She desperately needs some time off to recharge her batteries and the idea of a sabbatical is planted in her head when her colleague takes one because of her pregnancy. She thinks a sabbatical is the answer to all her problems. But life rarely works as per our plan. She is forced to quit when she isn’t granted a few months off. So she starts off with the list of options typed in her excel sheet, ready to dive in. And we journey with her as she goes through the list, trying things, with hilarious consequences.

Nimisha, fondly called Nimi, lives with her mother and maid. With a distinct personality of her own her maid is one of my favourite characters. Nimi has an elder sister and her nieces adore her. They love the stories she tells them. She has a bunch of friends who keep in touch in spite of their busy lives. Her relationships with friends, family, and office colleagues is portrayed in a real manner and there isn’t a single false note.

Nimi is afraid to make a fool of herself like the rest of us.  But she is a diligent worker who hasn’t more or less caught a break in 8 years and feels unappreciated. No wonder the burnout happened.

Nimisha is a likable protagonist but more than that she is flawed and real, like you and me. Initially I couldn’t connect with the corporate droning but I suspect most  people would identify with it. After that the pace picked up and I couldn’t stop reading. I haven’t worked in a corporate set up so for me it was looking in from the outside. A fresh perspective, and a scary one at that. I cackled at her jokes in the middle of a wintry night. There was a very real chance of waking people up and making them think I was a lunatic. Continue reading “Book review – I Quit! What Now?”

Wild Child and Other Stories by Paro Anand

Wild Child and Other Stories contains stories about teens dealing with issues that they grapple with. Paro Anand’s earlier book School Days which I thoroughly enjoyed was about tween’s issues but this one is so much darker because of the themes it deals with. Teens are unruly, difficult and moody but always in the need of love, both tough and tender.

This is an award winning book but why does it have such a bad cover? I mean come on, YA audience is used to being treated better all around the world. So glad it has now been re-released by Penguin India as Like Smoke which has 20 stories.

The title story Wild Child deals with a girl who is always bunking school (I had read an excerpt and decided to buy the book), vanishing somewhere where no one can find her. Intent only on punishing her, the elders make no enquiry or try to find out what is the matter with her. The answer when it comes, sheds light on her behaviour. People who deal with children need to be more aware and open, not to mention perceptive, to catch what is really the matter.

This is Shabir Karam is about children whose parents have been killed in Hindu- Muslim conflicts. Kids from different religions live together in a home but they have no love lost for each other. How children, who have no clue what religion is, are caught in the crossfire of hatred and bigotry will make you very uncomfortable.

Children are vulnerable, yet to form their opinions and adults, who are in a position to influence it, do grave disservice to them when they do it to meet their agenda. It makes children easy targets. Early childhood trauma is not something that can be reversed and their childhood is lost somewhere.

They Called Her ‘Fats’ is about an unruly, unfriendly and angry girl. Fatima has no friends and the children in the school spread vicious rumours about her. It is not only adults but children also fear what they don’t understand, and Fatima doesn’t make it easy for anyone. The sports teacher sees the potential in her when she throws the javelin.

Very few people are lucky to find  something that channelizes what they have inside them. It just takes one person to believe in you. What makes the story riveting is that it has roots in reality.

Santa’s Not So Little Helper is in a lighter vein. A boy who writes a creative writing piece in class about being part of Santa’s family. It is funny and did take me back to my school days but it didn’t quite fit in this collection.

In Jason Jamison and Ia star tennis player with swoon worthy good looks is troubled inside. The perfect exterior is a facade. He is the new boy who defeats the old reigning champion. Looks can be deceiving (quite literally) and friendship can spring up in the oddest of places between unlikeliest of people.

Mixed marriages are taboo in India and it is the worst when it is a foreigner. When the marriage doesn’t work out the family is left in the deep end, shunned by the society. What is the child’s fault? But he or she is the one who has to bear the brunt of it.

Hearing My Own Story talks about abuse that goes on inside the house. Physical and mental abuse is a reality for many married women. They have no clue that they can walk out of their abusive marriages and claim compensation. But the ground reality is murky and in India where marital rape isn’t a crime, women are helpless. The social fabric is at fault. Both people, outside and inside the home tell you to keep mum. 

Like Smoke was gut wrenching but felt short and abrupt. Maybe that is what the author wanted to show, how living in terrorist climes is, with bombing and shooting being everyday affairs. How uncertain and fragile their lives are with the threat of death looming on the horizon.

It makes you think about what is really being done about the situation in Kashmir. The militancy is destroying the lives of so many people, who are easy targets because they refuse to leave their motherland; it is the civilians who are paying the price for the unrest. Continue reading “Wild Child and Other Stories by Paro Anand”

Book review – A State of Freedom

The first thing that struck me about A State of  Freedom is it’s cover. The book jacket has a large bear on the cover, which is unusual and arresting but surprisingly aesthetically pleasing. When I began reading A State of Freedom, it reminded me of Lahiri’s oeuvre because of the way it started and the themes it deals with. But I soon realized Neel Mukherjee’s book is quite different.

The book is edgy and each section ends with a cliff-hanger. You want to gallop ahead and connect the dots, and at the same time, you want to take your time to savour the way it’s written.

A State of Freedom has a large canvas and deals with many issues in only 275 pages. The book is divided into 5 sections and the events that unfold are in different geographical locations. The way the stories of these characters are narrated gives them depth, and makes them appear real.

In the first section a man wants to familiarize his increasingly Americanized son with his roots. So they visit Mughal monuments like Fatehpur Sikhri and Taj Mahal. Originally from Calcutta, he has been living abroad for two decades, and now feels like “a tourist in his own country”. He wants his son to see India, and understand the culture he was born into. But they are like aliens from another planet.

I felt disoriented as the first section ended and wanted to stop but I urge you to read on (and not be put off by big words).

The second section flows more easily. A Bengali couple, the Sens, live in Mumbai and their son, a young writer, lives in London. He returns to India periodically to visit them. He is working on a cookbook which will contain authentic recipes from India as cooked in Indian households. The cooking at their home is done by Renu, who works as a cook in many households in Mumbai. Their son is curious about Renu because of her surly manner and tries to draw her into conversations but she doesn’t respond.

Treating the domestic help as a lesser human being is perhaps a relic of the Zamindari system. The son now straddles both worlds, old and new, and finds it  increasingly difficult to deal with the way things continue to be done in India.

The love of food intersperses this section. If you pay attention, many a recipe can be mined out from these pages. While exploring India for recipes, he also visits Renu’s home at her insistence. It is here he witnesses the divide between the classes.

Another woman, Milly, comes to clean the Sens’ house. She reappears as a major character in another section of the book.

The third section is the longest, and is the soul of the book. Motherless twins brought up by a father, who dies in a forest fire. One brother leaves home to find work. This section follows the other brother, Lakshman, as he attempts to eke out a living. He finds a bear cub and keeps it to save it from being killed. He names it Raju. With his brother gone, the responsibility of feeding his wife and children along with his own family now falls squarely on his shoulders.

The way the bear cub is handled, in an attempt to tame it, is barbaric. This, in a country where cows are ‘worshipped’. It makes you question who is really savage, man or beast?

They are animals their pain doesn’t last. All these animals that live in the wild, in the forest, on the streets, you have never known them to need a doctor, have you? They heal quickly, they are strong. It’s we, humans, who are weak.

With hunger gnawing their insides, their lives are foremost about survival. They are largely unaware of the world outside of their existence. They have no time to understand the rights of animals. Lakshman has trouble believing bear dancing is a crime one could be sent to jail for.

Lakshman tries to train Raju to be a performing bear and wanders from place to place living like a nomad, trying to earn money by making him dance. Though Lakshman is cruel to Raju, he is aware that he is at the mercy of the ‘helpless’ animal. Lakshman depends on Raju; the bear can forage for food and fend for itself. It makes you think about freedom, who is actually free.

The book shows how leaving home in search of a better quality of life works out differently for people, and the price they pay for it.  (Warning – Animal sacrifice is described in this section.)  Continue reading “Book review – A State of Freedom”

School Days by Paro Anand

Even though I am a grown woman a school girl still resides in me somewhere. It is wonderful to get into a child’s head and see how they view the world and hope some of the innocence rubs off on me. So years ago when I spotted Paro Anand’s School Days in the book fair I naturally pounced on it. It was a tattered old copy but all the pages were there. I know I have come a long way from reading only pristine undamaged books (read new books). What can I say poverty teaches you many things.

It has eight not so short stories with different settings and situations. They are guaranteed to make both children and adults laugh. Your attention won’t waver even once (unless you aren’t a reader) as the stories are delightfully crisp.

Center of attraction

The girl in Centre Stage is competing with Malati , her classmate, to be centre stage in some kind of a gymnastic event. She has to do a headstand to guarantee her place in it. But for some reason she’s unable to pull it off even after trying many times. Help comes from unexpected quarters, from a person who exists only for her. Confidence is the message here. 

Settling in a new place

New Blue was hilarious and had me laughing out loud in a public place. Immersion into a new culture is never easy. Being the new girl in not only a new school, but a new country in a culture Parvati’s not familiar with is too much. Making friends isn’t easy when people can’t even pronounce your name (read Parvati becomes Poverty). How we perceive things to be true without really knowing the facts and fitting in, are what the story deals with.

Stammering through a play

​To Play a P-p-part is about a girl who stammers. ​Gitali desperately wants to take part in a play in school which is about Savitri and Satyavan. How will she make that happen? Most people in her class make fun of her but her teachers start to see a glimmer of hope when she shows initiative and suggests a play, Children of a Lesser God, of her own accord. It has a deaf and mute girl in its lead. Since she won’t have to open her mouth the stammering won’t be a problem. Clever, but there is one problem. The movie is a romance with intimate moments and not suitable for children. Comedic moments are done well and it’s so real that you think it is all unfolding before your eyes. Evading a problem isn’t going to make it go away. To deal with the truth you have to face it head on. These stories have a lesson or two for us world weary adults too.

Who’s a bully?

In Bullies, a fat kid who is a good student is spoilt rotten by his parents because they finally got a son after 3 girls. Hail patriarchy! He is bullied because of his flab. It talks about a very important issue that affects so many people at so many levels, not only kids. Either you have been teased or you have done the teasing or you know someone who has been teased because of his/her weight. The story is about learning to deal with body image issues and being comfortable in your own skin. Continue reading “School Days by Paro Anand”

Just Married, Please Excuse

I read Yashodhara Lal’s There’s Something About You about two years ago and had quite liked the book for its unlikely lead pair (What’s not to love about an overweight, clumsy woman and a mild mannered man finding love!) and her sense of humour. Since then the name of the author had stuck. So when I saw Just Married, Please Excuse in the book fair I bought it without any compunction.

Yashodhara (Y) is a drama queen losing her temper at the drop of a hat. Vijay (V) is steady and has a cool demeanor. Both work in the same company and they ‘fall’ in love. I don’t think it’s clearly stated in the book why V fell for Y. Complete opposites in every which way, they belong to different generations (a 7 year age gap), and have different backgrounds (big city girl and small town boy). They also have different world views and ideologies unable to agree on anything except their love for each other. With possibly the shortest courtship in the history of modern romance, they jump into matrimony because V is getting older. He pesters the reluctant Y to say yes within months of going out. Yes, that is how it happens. No, I am not exaggerating.

How is 30 old (unless of course you live in a small town like me)? Isn’t 40 the new 30? Are we still living in the 21st century? That is the beauty of living in India. You can simultaneously experience many centuries in one lifetime.

V wanted to know Y’s caste before approaching his family but he assures her it won’t matter. Y on the other hand has no clue about her caste. I would like to say casteism is regressive and has no place in the society but having seen the matrimonial columns, and living in the society with my eyes and ears open, I have seen caste rear its ugly head more often than I’d like to admit.

Just Married, Please Excuse isn’t exactly a romcom but a scathing look at marriage using humour (sarcasm) as a tool.   Continue reading “Just Married, Please Excuse”

Book review – A Sweet Deal

I recently read the last book in the Tamanna trilogy, Time Will Tell, which didn’t make complete sense to me (obviously) but I liked the ease with which Andaleeb Wajid wrote and her sense of humour. I know what you are thinking and it’s true. I read the last book because it found its way to me first and couldn’t bother waiting because this was my first book from the author.

I had read an excerpt of A Sweet Deal online and was hooked. I thought to myself, I ought to get my hands on her other books soon, notably The Crunch Factor and More Than Just Biryani. Yes, I am a foodie and I have a sweet tooth. Go skewer me!

In A Sweet Deal two friends leave their drudgery filled corporate jobs and invest all their savings in a cafe, Not Too Sweet, taking on the challenge of running it by themselves. 

Rumana is hot headed, jealous and jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts. Then looks at her actions, in hindsight, with a twinge of regret. That is, if she is not in denial mode. She has a cool as cucumber partner in Neharika, who balances out the craziness unleashed by her moodiness. Slothful Vinod also helps in running the cafe. He does odd jobs whereas the baking part is completely left to the girls.

One fine day Vinod waltzes in with a flyer with the news of a new patisserie  opening next door and all the hell breaks loose.

Enter Daniyal. The rich and suave owner of the patisserie next door. He has studied in a fancy culinary school abroad. And he has many people working for him, whereas Rumana and Neharika only have themselves to manage the food.  He is charming and has everyone eating out of his hands.  If that wasn’t infuriating enough, he worms out Rumana’s life story and her Nani’s recipe of delectable carrot cake, from her within minutes. She is furious and makes up her mind to do whatever it takes to stay ahead of him.

In reality there’s no competition but Rumana gets this thought into her head since she heard about the patisserie opening next door. They cater to different niches and could have amiably coexisted but she feels threatened. More so, because theirs is a new cafe and they are yet to break even.

Initially, Daniyal enjoys sparring with her and has fun riling her up but ends up feeling more than he had bargained for.

Let’s talk about the meet cute. The woman is in her bed clothes, hair wild and the man looks like a worker on a deadline, slaving away to complete a paint job. It also involved a shouting match. It’s a rocky start from the word get go.

Continue reading “Book review – A Sweet Deal”