Category Archives: Personal Reads

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

To me the psychological thriller has always been scarier than any form of supernatural horror story. It is the premise of a seemingly benign environment, sweet, happy and idyllic beneath which lurks something evil and sinister that gets me every time. A good psychological thriller scares my very soul and I do enjoy a good fright.

In my quest for a gripping thriller I came across the name of Wilkie Collins. Article after article touted him as the author who first wrote books containing unreliable narrators, evil characters, deadly secrets and so on. Someone who wrote stories that are innocuous and mundane on the surface but with an undercurrent of the macabre. One article even called him the father of the modern psychological thriller. I had to read his books.

I found my first Wilkie Collins book called The Woman in White available online. The book was written in 1859 and it is Wilkie Collins’ fifth book. The tale is told by multiple narrators in the form of a witness statement. Collins has used the device of multiple narrators very effectively to create mystery and suspense without the whole seeming too unrealistic.

Albeit the woman in white reads more like a mystery and suspense novel, I can see why it is the precursor for the modern psych thriller. It has all the trappings of a Victorian love story but from the first page you know that this is no regular romance. Though more than the plot of the novel or the thrill of the mystery, it is some of the idiosyncratic characters that are the most memorable.

The mystery and the fate of these characters kept me reading till the end even though the book felt over long and slow paced. This is of course my failure as a reader more than a failure on the writer’s part. Most books these days are fast paced with no lack of action, page turners so to speak. Colllins’ book is not a page turner in that sense but it does enough to make you want to get to the end and maybe consider reading a few more by him.

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Some stories are written in such a way that their words penetrate your skin to go straight through to your bones and into the very marrow of your being. As soon as I read the first two pages of this book, I knew that Tsukuru Tazaki’s years of pilgrimage was going to be such a story.

If I had to describe what the book is about in two lines, I would call it a tale of rejection, a tale in which Tsukuru Tazaki is cut off by his really close high school friends without any explanation and how years later he goes in search for the reason behind this brutal rejection.

But describing this book in two lines would be grossly unfair because the true essence of the story is in the details. In the way it enumerates what it feels like to be rejected, especially by people who you have loved with all your heart and soul. If you have ever had your heart broken, Tsukuru’s journey to the brink of death and back will resonate deeply.

The sense of helplessness and powerlessness that he feels, the dreamlike quality of his days when he is in the throes of pain, the deep wound within his soul that affects his relationships even in later years and the utter loneliness of his existence enveloped me to create an aura of pain all around as I read the book.

Interestingly, despite the fantastical bend of his feelings, what I loved about Tsukuru is that eventually, he is firmly grounded in reality. Also, his story, even though extremely sad and desolate, had this weird sense of strength and hope. He takes charge and goes in search of answers and it is really brave the way he does it.

At the end of the book, I felt at peace. I was able to allow myself to feel the absolute dejection and desolation of heart-break and rejection. Not only that, I was also able to accept the many incomplete answers that I have received for my zillion questions. Tsukuru’s journey had a cathartic effect on me and I made my own mental journey through the deserted landscape of my life as I read his story.

The book is over but the words will remain with me and I will keep going back to the sensations and feelings that the various scenes of Tsukuru’s life evoked and derive either comfort, strength or hope from them.

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Evading the Shadows by Rajesh Iyer

Often expectations get set even before the first page of the book is opened. Usually the attempt to give an idea of what the book is about using marketing blurbs, the genre of the book, the cover of the book, the synopsis in the back, all create a notion in the reader’s mind of what to expect from the story within. This can go either way especially if the story does not live up to the image in the reader’s head. Is the book then automatically disliked?

I asked myself this question many times as I read “Evading the shadows”. I had my set of expectations which were mostly a result of most of the things I have mentioned above. They were raised as I read the prologue which was indeed very intriguing. I was looking forward to delving into the part of the Mahabharata where the Pandavas spend the last year of their exile incognito as per the bet which is what the book is about. But the pace of this story in my head would be that of spy thriller rather than a mythological account. I was looking forward to a story that would be a brilliant blend of a classic Indian myth and the suspense and intrigue of a Jason Bourne novel.

Alas, as I read it began to down on me that this tale was nothing like what I expected. There were moments of excitement but they failed to engage me or arouse any emotional reaction for the characters. A lot of the book turned out to be a mere re-telling of the Mahabharata story prior to the epic battle. I kept waiting for the pace to pick up, for something out of the ordinary to happen that would justify the prologue but in vain, as I turned the last page of the book.

As I think back to the story, I am still wondering if I would have liked it had it not been for the huge build up in my head. But I do have to admit that the book writing failed to build a larger than life aura that the telling of any epoch demands. Also, I cannot deny the strong sense I felt while reading that the author was unable to make the story his own. There seemed to be a reluctance to take this story to the next level by adding unexpected twists that would deviate from the original storyline. The characters too seemed to be inadequately developed almost as if the author was relying on their well-established personalities to fill in the gaps.

In short, the idea behind the story was great but it lacked the finesse and clever writing that would have made for a superlative read.

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The Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio

Some books are meant to be devoured like a delicious home cooked meal. And then there are books which have to be savoured like a painstakingly created dinner.

Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio is like that dinner which has to be savoured; its every sentence is crafted to such perfection. Its lyrical, poetic prose brings the desert alive. I could feel every grain of sand, each ray of the scorching sun. The heat & dryness made me thirst for water, I felt my throat parch with every word and I was transported to the desert in all its glory and stark reality.

I took my time reading this book. I carried it around with me everywhere I went. The minute I would open it, no matter where I was, I would be back in that desert. Back in the two interwoven stories – the time around 1910 which follows Nour during the desert tribes’ uprisings against the French and an indefinite time set in a shanty desert town where Lalla; who is probably a descendant of one of those desert tribes; lives with her aunt and cousins.

Both these stories are about searching; searching for freedom, for a place to belong; searching for a home; when the one you’ve always known is made uninhabitable. Nour and his tribe along with the entire clan wander the desert to find a promised land away from the invaders whereas Lalla who is forced to marry, chooses to elope with the Hartani – her closest friend. Nour, Lalla & the Hartani are all searching for a way of life that may be lost forever.

There is a subliminal cry throughout the book to preserve the arid lands of the African desert. Every sentence in the book screamed at me to recognize the beauty and magic in that life – that life of running barefoot across the sands, that life of listening to stories by the fire, that life of having a secret hiding place amongst the rocks where you feel safe from everything, that life where you feel connected to the birds & the wind, the waves & the clouds and every grain of sand & falling leaf. The power of this simple life is evident in Lalla’s unhappiness & horror in the city. Compared to the mystical desert, the city seems robotic & mundane, almost like a prison.

In addition to being an ode in praise of everything nature has to offer and a simple way of life, there are many other themes explored in the book. To me this book also advocates the sanctity of a person’s right to live the way they choose. For Nour and his tribe, this choice is destroyed by the power that money is able to exert, but there is hope for Lalla as she is able to return to the life she loves. Another theme is the insidious power of money that destroys our ability to see that which is truly important; this is visible everywhere in the city that Lalla elopes to and also in the greed of the chieftains which ruins every chance of the desert tribes to keep their land safe.

In conclusion, this book is for the thrill seeker of a different kind. If you go weak in knees at breath-taking descriptions and sentences formed choosing just the right words, like a jeweller would choose diamonds for a necklace fit for the queen, then this is a must read for you. If not, feel free to skip it for the next murder mystery.

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Alberto Moravia’s – A Ghost at Noon

This book was recommended to me by a friend just after my visit to Italy. As half of me was still wandering in that enchanting country; this book which is mostly based in Capri, the place I travelled to on my last day in Italy against all odds; it instantly made a special place in my heart. But that is not the only reason for raving about it.

“A ghost at noon” is the story of the disintegration of a marriage. Moravia has weaved an intricate web of the misunderstandings, assumptions, expectations and miscommunications that slowly suffocate a strong and loving relationship.

Moravia’s prose pulled me into this marriage; I was right there with the husband trying to figure out the workings of his wife’s mind. It took me back to the time when my relationship had ended, and I would spend hours trying to figure out what went wrong, what could I have done differently. The protagonist endlessly analyzes every word, every action of every encounter with his wife in the hope of grasping the elusive answer to the question that rules supreme in all our minds when something doesn’t work out – WHY? And it is Moravia’s expertise as a writer that not even for one second was I bored and that just the way I could never satisfactorily explain the end of any of my relationships, neither could Moravia’s protagonist. Yes, he had many theories, just like me, but which one of them was the right theory? We never found out, we would never find out. And right there in the climax, I found my peace with ambiguity.

This book took me on a voyage, not just to my favourite country but into my past. I related to the confusion and misgivings of the main character. To his need for closure and his desire to be able to read his wife’s innermost thoughts. It made me feel less weird and lonely. I think anyone who has ever been in a relationship, which did not work out, should read this book. It has the added advantage of being beautifully written and set in the most mesmerizing place in the world.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling -Review

Though undeserving of praise such as it is a must read, the best detective novel of the century blah blah blah, “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith a.k.a J.K. Rowling is an enjoyable read. The premise is simple; Lula Landry, a super model dives to her death from the balcony of her flat. The police investigation concludes that she committed suicide. Three months later, her brother, unhappy with the verdict brings in a PI, Cormoran Strike to re-investigate.

The characters in this book, especially Cormoran Strike, who you care about almost as much as the mystery is the reason this book is fun to read. Because Strike is so secretive about his own past, his back story is revealed over many pages and we are left to interpret and draw conclusions about him with a little bit of information that is provided initially. It managed to keep me hooked and interested despite the slow pace of the investigation. At one point I wondered if there was going to be any real investigation because Google searches was all Strike did. This was definitely a refreshing change from all the serial killer mysteries and CSI style detective stories. This book is more reminiscent of Perry Mason except that Strike is nothing like the suave, charming, always impeccable Mason. Strike is more what you would think a private eye to be in this day and age. He is broke, financially and emotionally, too proud for his own good (he refuses help even from his sister), has had a difficult and murky childhood, he is prone to use alcohol as a shield, he is mostly honest but his honesty is peppered to some extent with self-interest. This last trait more than anything makes him very relatable along with the fact that unlike many detective stories, the work does not completely overtake Strike’s life. His problems are still intact and they continue to affect him in numerous ways. And though Cormoran is the star of the book, the rest of the characters are not ignored, each one has their quirks, each one is described in enough detail that they leap off the page.

The pace of this book, from its almost lethargic beginning where Strike’s every movement is recorded, from his taking the afternoon off to drink at the local pub, to his spending the nights in his office etc to the increasing speed of the story as it nears its conclusion where days/nights are skipped over to get to the relevant appointment which would further the investigation, was almost like listening to a symphony with its ever-increasing tempo to the final crescendo.

The revelation of the mystery came as a slight surprise and was completely satisfying. My only gripe was with Strike’s monologue where he explains every nuance of his investigation. Though the explanation of his process was necessary, the way it was done in the book felt unnatural.

In the end, I would say the book was an entertaining read and if you are a fan of detective novels then this book will not disappoint.

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The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

Mirza Waheed’s “The Collaborator” is the story of Nowgam, a border village in Kashmir, set in the early ’90s at the height of the insurgency. The narrator is the son of the village headman, stuck in his village becasue of his father’s decision to stay, even after everyone else flees either across the border or further into India.
The narrative moves from the present, where the son of the headman is forced to work for the Indian Army, to the past, when the village was a happy place, full of life. This structure works well in creating a stark sense of horror, tragedy and loneliness. Especially when the narrator recalls the many hours he spent in the valley near his village playing cricket, singing songs, talking about mundane things with his four best friends while working in the same valley, now a dumping site for the dead bodies of alleged insurgents killed by the Indian Army. Or when he walks down the main street of his village which some time back was alive with men and women he knew and greeted every day.
The character of the narrator, a 19-year-old boy, who lives in a ghost village, has lost his best friends to the insurgency and is forced to spend his days working for someone he despises, doing work he hates, that of collecting weapons and Id cards from the dead bodies in the valley, engages your attention and immediately pulls you into his story. You see the world from the eyes of this Kashmiri boy, his confusion with regards to what is true and where he belongs, summarized in this line, “For a Kashmiri there is always an Indian and a Pakistani version of everything”, his desire to be a part of the movement at the same time his reluctance to do anything as drastic as kill his boss, the Indian Army Captain, his need to understand the reason his friends did not ask him to join them across the border, his memories of his beautiful village and most of all his hopes for his and his family’s future. All of it is brought to a not unexpected but elegant conclusion, the only way this story could have ended was with a lot of questions left unanswered.
The book is a serious read. It has vivid images of death and torture and the destruction of a way of life. Though the language gets slightly over descriptive and wordy, I would still recommend this book because it tackles the subject of militancy, a sense of country & belonging, loyalty, friendship and kinship with a rare insight.

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