2010 – The year that went by

Books in 2010

  1. Best Book of 2010: The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Unfortunately, most of the books I read this year were just average. Water for Elephants was also a good read.
  2. Worst  Book of 2010: Zero Percentile by Neeraj Chhiba. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks comes a close second.
    Birdsong just didn’t work for me.
  3. Most Disappointing Book of 2010: Roots by Alex Haley. It was highly recommended to me by many people. The book didn’t live up to the recommendation and the praise.
  4. Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2010: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This has to be the most charming book I read this year.
  5. Book You Recommended the Most to People in 2010: The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I recommended it to anybody who cared to listen.
  6. Best Series You Discovered in 2010: The Millennium Series, David Lodge Trilogy. David Lodge was recommended to me by my friend and I really like his writing style.
  7. Favourite New Authors Discovered in 2010: Stieg Larsson, Maraget Atwood

  8. Most Hilarious Read of 2010: Changing Places by David Lodge
  9. Most Thrilling Unputdownable Read of 2010: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  10. Books You Most Anticipated in 2010: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I had been hearing about this book all the time and had to read it to see for myself.
  11. Favourite Cover of a Book You Read in 2010: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  12. Most Memorable Character of 2010: Lisbeth Salander from The Millennium Series, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson from The Help
  13. Most Beautifully Written Book of 2010: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  14. Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2010: The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  15. Book You Can’t Believe You Waited Until 2010 to Read: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Seriously! This book is for kids. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it all this while.

Book-Blogging in 2010

  1. New Favourite Book Blog Discovered in 2010: Bibliojunkie, Book Nook

  2. Favourite Review You Wrote in 2010: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  3. Best Discussion Had on Your Blog: None
  4. Most Thought Provoking Review or Discussion Read on Another Blog: None
  5. Best Event That You Participated In: None
  6. Best Moment of Book Blogging in 2010: I can’t name one single moment, but I always enjoyed writing reviews on my blog.

  7. Best Bookish Discovery: All the new blogs I discovered.
Posted in 2010. 6 Comments »

Just for fun

Answer the following questions using only books read in 2010.  Do not repeat your answers.

  1. If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The Secret Garden
  2. Your favorite form of transportation:  Water for Elephants
  3. Your best friend is:  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Anne of Green Gables
  4. You and your friends are:  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  5. What’s the weather like: A New Earth
  6. Favorite time of day: The Wind in the Willows
  7. If your life was a:  The Interpretation of Murder
  8. What is life to you:  Nice Work
  9. Your fear: The Blind Assassin
  10. What is the best advice you have to give: It’s not about the bike
  11. Thought for the Day: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  12. How I would like to die: The Calcutta Chromosome
  13. My soul’s present condition: Outliers

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

When the title of the book is so intriguing, you expect a lot from the book itself. Once you get over the intrigue factor of the title, you find that the book is about a book club formed in the town of Guernsey which is the only British land occupied by the Germans during World War 2. The name of the book club is ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’. (My fingers ache!) There is an interesting story behind why the club was named that way and I think you should read the book for that.

The book starts with Juliet Ashton celebrating the success of her latest book and searching for a topic for her next book. She gets an unexpected letter from Dawsey Adams from Guernsey who has a copy of her old and abandoned book “The Selected Essays of Elia” by Charles Lamb. Dawsey contacts her wishing to know where he can find more books from the same author. Dawsey happens to be a member of the book club and thus starts Juliet’s interaction with the other members of the book club. Juliet finds the club and its survival during the Occupation very engaging and decides to explore further if it can be turned into a book. We see Juliet landing in Guernsey and meeting other people on the island to collect their version of the Occupation.

The entire book is written in the form of letters. We see letters being exchanged between all the characters and this gives a different structure to the book. There is no single omnipotent narrator and each character takes turn to narrate the story and though this is some form of omnipotence, it introduces its own set of complexities. There are many places where a character would not include certain things in the letter, but since this is intended for a reader, the author had to include it. There is a letter from Juliet to Sidney about a gift that he sent.

Dear Sidney,
What an inspired present you sent Kit – red satin tap shoes covered with sequins

It’s obvious the author included this because there is no other way the reader would have known what gift Sidney sent, but if Juliet was actually writing this letter, she would not have included this detail. Since the main essence of the book is the idea of letters being sent by a group of people in an unknown island to a writer, I can understand why the author chose her entire book to be in the form of letters. But tactless inclusion of details like above (the author could have included the detail in a smarter way) makes you click your tongue and distracts you from the story.

I personally found the structure unappealing. To keep track of who sent the letter to whom and when was a big problem for me. I have read similar structured  books before (We Need to Talk about Kevin), but this book is particularly taxing because of the short letters and too many characters. After a point of time, I wanted to scream ‘Forget the letters, just get on with the story’.

Characters – there is no dearth in this book. There are characters in all forms – gender, race, nationality, quirks, nature, age. One character that stood out for me was Elizabeth McKenna. The irony is she doesn’t appear in the book but is only mentioned by the other characters and this adds a bit of mystery to her. Isola also springs to my mind as an interesting character. The protagonists though leave a lot to be desired.

Mary Ann Shaffer started writing this book and had to rope in her niece Annie Barrows to complete it because Mary was diagnosed with cancer. She didn’t live to celebrate the success of her book.

It’s a charming little book, as the English would call it, but I didn’t find anything extraordinary in it. Yes, there are some good things in the book, but I don’t think you would miss anything by not reading it. I wouldn’t stop someone from picking it up, but why waste time on this when you have better books to read, eh?

PS: Oscar Wilde appears as a character in this book, but I cannot reveal more without marking this review as a spoiler. Go read the book.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

This book is part of the BBC’s Big Read – Top 100 books.

When this book was mentioned multiple times on this blog (which I read regularly, though I am a lurker), I knew I had to read this book. I have been catching up with left out children’s books this year, so this fit in perfectly. Anne of Green Gables is about Anne, an orphan, who is adopted by a brother-sister duo. The book shows how Anne wins the heart of her foster parents and her neighbors with her vivacious nature, her wild imagination and her constant blabber.

Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert are siblings who reside in Green Gables and decide to adopt a boy who can help Matthew with his farm work. Owing to some misunderstanding, they end up adopting Anne. Marilla is hesitant to adopt a girl – who is a bigger responsibility and who can’t be of any help in the farm, but decides to keep her anyway because she can’t see the girl sad.

Anne is proud of her imagination and uses it whenever she can. She imagines that she is a very pretty girl with royal dresses and beautiful hair whereas in reality she is far from it. Whenever she is in a fix or an unwelcome situation, she imagines herself to be in a wonderful situation and get through. When all her other friends in school wear puffed sleeves dress and she is the only one with plain sleeves, Anne imagines that her sleeves are puffed too. What a way to solve your problems. I was so inspired by Anne’s strategy that I used it myself a couple of times and it works really well.

The book shows us how Marilla brings up the talkative, imaginative child into a responsible and caring girl. We see how Anne saves her “bosom friend” Diana’s sister’s life, how she serves cake with liniment to a guest, how she goes to Queen’s to train to be a teacher. As the book progresses, we can clearly see Anne maturing with age. The talkative kid blossoms into an admirable girl.

Though I was inspired by the above mentioned blog to read this book, I don’t share her opinions. I did find Anne very likeable, but she is not a character I would call memorable. Same goes with her foster parents – Marilla and Matthew. Could it be because I am reading this at a wrong age? It’s a children’s book and I, for sure, am not a kid. I might have liked Anne more if I had ‘met’ her at a young age. Who knows?

I recommend this book to kids – there are lots of ‘moral’ education in there. How one should say prayers before going to bed, how kids get into trouble for not listening to elders, how values are more important than vanity and so on. To someone my age, I would say you are not losing anything by not reading this book. If you want to try a children’s book, then The Secret Garden is a much better one.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

It’s hard to miss this book. It comes up in discussions often and on lists like All Time 100 Best Novels From 1923-2005. It’s a shame that I hadn’t read this book all these years and I decided to take things into hand and finally get down to reading it.

The book is set in a mental asylum in Oregon which is run by a tyrannical nurse “Big Nurse” Miss. Ratched who manages the asylum and the patients according to her whims and fancies. She tacitly threatens the inmates – “The Acutes”, first level of insanes – with shock therapy and lobotomy which will make them “The Chronics”, who are in a vegetative state. The patients are naturally tormented by her but lack the courage to stand up and speak against her. A new patient, MacMurphy, makes an entry into the asylum faking insanity to escape a jail sentence. He gets into tiffs with the nurse and upsets the routine and questions her actions. This leads to a constant power struggle between McMurphy and the nurse.

The helpless condition of the inmates and the way the staff take advantage of their helplessness tugs at your heart. While most of this might be true about mental asylums, you still hope that these things exist only in the fictional world. Refusing medication and administering medication to induce sleep so that the staff can get away with their amorous activities and stealing, giving electric shocks for breaking a rule, not caring for hygiene and letting the inmates rot their in their own pee – this book is not for the faint of heart.  McMurphy tries to bring in laughter to the asylum and constantly reminds the inmates to stand for their rights and makes them wonder whether they are really insane. He places a bet with the inmates that he can lift a heavy shower control panel and when he fails to do so, he says, “Atleast I tried”, which inspires the inmates. Several incidents like this make the inmates slowly take charge of their own lives and resist the unquestionable control of the nurse. It makes me wonder how many times I have let someone run over me and stood watching helplessly. I wish I could say ‘Atleast I tried’.

McMurphy and the nurse’s character are strong and opposing. While McMurphy makes you feel warm and energetic, the mention of Big Nurse makes you cower. The narrator Chief is another inmate in the asylum who pretends to be deaf and dumb and is hence privy to many dark secrets of the asylum. The other characters in the book – the stuttering Billy Bibbit, the strong Harding, the germaphobic George, the doctor, the black orderlies add variety. The language is smooth and easy. The story and the narration keeps your interest perked up. What takes the cake is the ending. While it’s not hard to predict what was coming, you can’t help getting emotional when you read the climax.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest borrows its title from a nursery rhyme.

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

Cuckoo here refers to a mentally disturbed person and cuckoo’s nest is the asylum. McMurphy can be seen as the one who flew over the cuckoo’s nest because he went against the rules and disturbed the nest. Chief, the narrator, can also be the one because he frees himself from the clutches of the asylum.

The book was made into a film which went on to win many awards. Jack Nicholson won the best actor award for playing the role of McMurphy and Lousie Fletcher won the best actress award for playing Nurse Ratched. The film also won awards for Best Picture and Best Director. More details on wiki. I don’t have the courage to watch the movie. If you have, let me know how you find it. If you also read the book, then which one do you prefer – the book or the movie?

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Stieg Larsson

This is the final book in the millennium trilogy and continues the story that was left behind in the previous book. We see the same main characters – Lisbeth Salander, who was left with a bullet in her head in the last book and Mikhael Blomkvist, who is still to patch things up with his buddy Lisbeth. There are other familiar characters too – Berger, Mikhael’s buddy and the editor-in-chief of Millennium magazine, Armansky, head of Milton Security and a few others.

The story starts with Lisbeth getting hospitalized. Zalachenko, Lisbeth’s father, who was attacked by Lisbeth in the last book, is also hospitalized. The cops and the prosecutor are building a case against Lisbeth, who is accused of three murders, while Lisbeth herself is blissfully unconscious in the hospital. Mikhael is building up his own story to prove Lisbeth’s innocence and bring those people to justice who denied Lisbeth’s her rights as a child. While Zalachenko is recovering his health, the Section, a group of people who were responsible for protecting the political refugee Zalachenko are in a fix because their secret might be revealed. They hatch a plan to silence Zalachenko, Mikhael and anybody else who might know this story and commit Lisbeth to psychiatry ward claiming she is incompetent and insane. It is up to Mikhael, his lawyer sister and Lisbeth herself to prove Lisbeth’s innocence.

The story is interesting no doubt, but there is very little happening in this book. The first book had a very interesting plot and the second book established Lisbeth’s character and weaved a very interesting story around her. The third book should have been a fitting finale to a great series, but it falls short. The author has tried to put in a lot of suspense and on-the-edge situations, but it fails to stir your adrenaline. After a point of time, the story becomes predictable and the book becomes boring.

There is a new element in this book – the court scene. When Lisbeth is brought to trial, we see Mikhael’s sister defending Lisbeth and taking on her enemies in the courtroom. I know Grisham’s court scenes are really popular and thrilling, but Larsson’s scene doesn’t match up.

The third book is good as a thriller, but when you compare it with earlier two books in the trilogy, it is disappointing. Also, if you want to read this book, ensure that you have read the earlier two books, otherwise you will be left with no clue about what’s happening. There is a very strong connection between the books and you will miss out on appreciating the story if you read these books out of sequence.

I enjoyed reading the Millennium trilogy and wish there were more such books coming from the author. Stieg Larsson wrote these books as a hobby, after he got back from work. These three books were published posthumously. Larsson died of a heart attack before he could finish the fourth book whose unfinished manuscript is with his publishing partner. It’s said that Larsson planned to write 10 books as part of the Millennium series. The third book actually concludes things and ties up loose ends, so I am curious how Larsson would have continued the story in the fourth book. Wish he was alive to see the popularity of his books and also to write more such books.

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

The book revolves around four friends pursuing their graduation at Princeton University. Thomas, is the narrator of this book, whose father was fascinated with the Renaissance book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and the secret it possesses. Paul is writing his thesis on this book and is bent on solving the puzzle revolving around it. Thomas is pulled into this as he struggles to maintain a balance between his personal life and his obsession with the book.

This book gives us a glimpse into the Renaissance period and the authors, architects and artists from that period. The book, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, is written cleverly by an author who wants to remain anonymous. He has hidden a message in the book which will be revealed only after solving many puzzles. Paul and Thomas set out to do exactly that and this journey is interesting. The reader is presented with the puzzle and how it eventually gets solved. An intelligent and interested reader can go ahead and try to solve these himself. This is the best part of the book – read the puzzle and read ahead eagerly to see what is the solution to it.

We get to see Thomas’ dilemma of whether to work on the book at the cost of losing his girlfriend. He is drawn into solving puzzles to satisfy his intellectual quest, but he wants to maintain a healthy relationship with his girlfriend. This gets a bit tedious at times. The reader is all excited with the puzzles and the solutions and the author introduces these emotional scenes and honestly, it was a bit cheesy for me.

There are some good characters in the book. Paul is a very interesting character. Someone who lost his parents early in life and his passion for the book and his extreme intelligence comes across as a well etched character. Thomas, in contrast, pales a bit. Taft is another interesting character. Charlie adds a bit of variety to the book.

If you have read and enjoyed ‘The Da Vinci Code’, then you should give this book a try. It is far more intriguing. If you enjoyed reading ‘The Name of the Rose’, then you will not be disappointed with this one.

I read this book long back. I started this post soon after and completely forgot about it for months.  Hence, the review looks unfinished, but I don’t remember enough of the book to finish it, so am publishing it as is.

Interview and Giveaway

After I thoroughly enjoyed Melvin Durai’s debut book, Bala takes the plunge, I decided to take things further. I emailed the author a few questions and Melvin was kind enough to respond. Here is an interview with Melvin Durai. He has some interesting points, so do read his answers!

 

Q:   You wrote your first humor column in 1994. How did that happen? What drove you to writing?

I was working as a newspaper reporter in America at the time. It was a small newspaper, so it was fairly easy to get a column published. I just got inspired one day when I read an article about women wearing men’s underwear as tops. People in the newsroom really enjoyed my first humour column. However, my second column didn’t get printed — and I didn’t try again for another year. In 1995, the newspaper hired a new lifestyle editor and after seeing a few of my humor columns, she gave me an opportunity to write them every week.

I was always interested in writing — and it came easy to me — but my mom wanted me to become a doctor, so it was only after I failed to get into medical school (and failed to become an accountant, one of her alternative careers for me) that I was able to pursue my passion.

 

Q:  Why did you choose humor as your genre? Do you plan to branch out and try other genres?

I have tried writing literary fiction and even got a short story published in a literary magazine. But I realized some years ago that while I could probably get a literary novel published (if I worked hard enough on it), it would be fairly average. As a humor writer, I can do better than that, I believe. I enjoy making people laugh and hope to do so for a few more decades.

 

Q:   Where do you draw your inspiration from for your humor columns?

Usually something in the news inspires me or something that happens at home with my kids or wife. I used to write a lot of topical columns, but am trying to also write columns that have a longer shelf life, that will still be funny a decade later. I’ve learned over the years that you can’t always wait for inspiration; sometimes you just have to write.

 

Q:   Who are your favorite humor authors?

I’ve enjoyed Dave Barry, Stuart McClean, Andy Borowitz, Erma Bombeck, among others.

 

Q: What are you reading right now? What was the last memorable book you have read?

I’m reading “No Onions Nor Garlic” by Srividya Natarajan (my wife absolutely loved it). The last memorable book I read is Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. It should have won the Pulitzer Prize.

 

Q:   How did the idea for your book take shape?

About a decade ago, I wrote some humor columns about matrimonial ads and marriage that were very popular. I felt that the topic was full of humorous possibilities that I could bring out in a novel. But it wasn’t until I visited India in 2005 (after a very long absence) that I got the necessary inspiration to pull it off.

 

Q: How did the character Bala come into existence?

Several years ago, when I was dabbling in stand-up comedy, I made a joke about Americans not being able to pronounce a long Indian name like Balasubramaniam. When I started to write the novel, for some reason, the name Balasubramaniam just seemed to fit. I had no idea what the character would turn into. I just kept writing, trying to make the book funny.

 

Q: What is the next step? Can we expect a sequel?

Not sure about a sequel, but I’m definitely working on another novel. I can’t say much about it, because I don’t know what it will be about yet.

 

Giveaway

Now the giveaway. Melvin has kindly agreed to giveaway a copy of his book to one lucky reader. I offer another copy from my side, so two of you can win a copy of Melvin’s debut book. Here are the rules.

1.Mandatory: Have a look at the past humor columns written by Melvin. Read something you like? Come back and leave a comment about it here.

2. You can improve your chances of winning by blogging about this giveaway, tweeting about it and posting it on facebook. Come back and leave a separate comment for each of these.

3. This is not mandatory, but I would like to know who is your favorite author in the humor genre. Indian or otherwise. This does not increase your winning chances, but would help me in expanding my knowledge base.

4. Contest is open until November 15th. I will randomly choose winners and contact them. Winners will have 5 days to get back to me with their contact details, failing which I will choose new winners.

5. Contest is open to anybody who has a postal address.

6. Enough already. Comment away and keep your fingers crossed.

PS: I am on a vacation till Nov 10th, so I won’t be responding to your comments. If you face difficulty in leaving a comment here, you can use the ‘Contact Me’ form and I will count that as a valid entry.

Bala takes the plunge by Melvin Durai

Let me be honest. I had never heard of this book when the author contacted me for a review. After a few recent disappointments in books, I knew better to keep my expectations low, so when the book arrived I was neither too excited nor too eager. And this worked out well because I was pleasantly surprised with the book.

Bala takes the plunge is about Bala and the plunge here refers to his attempt at entering the matrimonial world. Bala is a single man living in the United States and earning a handsome salary. He wants to find a bride for himself before his parents find one and force him to marry her. The main thread of the book is how Bala tries to find a woman, but we do get glimpses of Bala’s childhood and his life back in India.

The book is generously peppered with humor. Humor is a difficult genre (didn’t I say the same thing in my last review) and Durai scores well here. He is witty and humorous. His play with words leaves you laughing your heart out. There are some places where the humor looks too stretched. It looks as if Durai was trying too hard to come up with something witty. The jokes involving the gay character are examples.

Durai builds memorable characters. Bala evokes your emotions – you sympathize with him when a girl rejects him and rejoice when he finds a new candidate. Bala’s mom and dad add the right amount of humor required. Bala’s colleagues and his numerous potential candidates add variety and keep your interest perked. Even here the gay character was an eye sore. Also, I felt Bala’s colleagues could have used some more depth.

Our guy, Bala, is a big Rajinikant fan and I am guessing, so is the author. You will see dialogues from Rajini’s movies come up here and there. For someone like me who is not familiar with Tamil and Rajini’s dialogues, it’s interesting to read them in English. Every time I read a dialogue, I imagined Rajini delivering those lines with one of his well-known style.

I felt the ending was too rushed. It was obvious what was coming, but the way things culminated – it was a bit less dramatic and less romantic. Durai could have given more justification to Bala’s decision and made it more realistic.

A book’s cover makes the first impression on a reader’s mind. Durai’s book fails in this category. The book cover (at least the edition that I read), designed by Kedarnath Gupta, is tasteless. It does not depict the humor that the book is full of. The colors are drab and uninteresting. At the first glance, it was hard for me to even read the title and the author’s name.

Melvin Durai was born in India and is settled in North America. He writes humor columns and has won many accolades. For someone who was not brought up in India, Durai paints a realistic picture of India and the Indian culture. Melvin’s debut book comes as a breeze of fresh air when many Indian writers are attempting at writing books and failing. The book is short and sweet – it tickles your funny bones. For the small price, the book is value for money. I hope Durai takes this forward and writes a sequel. It will be interesting to read Bala’s take on the matrimonial world.

Nice Work by David Lodge

After thoroughly enjoying my frist David Lodge book Changing Places, I went ahead and read the other two books in the David Lodge trilogy, Small World and Nice Work. The last book is considered as the best book in the trilogy and I beg to differ.

The characters introduced in the first book are carried over and hence we see familiar charcters – Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp (making a special appearance). This book revolves around Robyn Penrose, a feminist professor at Rummidge and Vic Wilcox, managing director of a manufacturing company. Under a scheme called as Shadow Scheme, Robyn is appointed as a shadow of Vic in which she has to be with him one day a week, watching him work and trying to understand the manfuacturing industry. The book follows the two characters where they witness friction owing to their drastically different principles and opinions. The author shows the weakness that both the characters possess and how both their lives take a twist in the end.

While the book was fast paced and interesting, it lacked the humor that impressed me in Changing Places. There are moments especially when Robyn and Vic fight and argue about their principles, but the witty humor from the first book was sadly missing from the second and the third book. Lodge creates very strong characters in Vic, Robyn, Vic’s wife and Robyn’s partner. You end up feeling sad or happy with the mood of the main characters.

Nice Work was nominated for Booker Prize and it won the Sunday Express Book of the Year in 1989. It was also made into a movie.

Humor is a very difficult to get it right and Lodge did that in his first book. If you have never tried David Lodge, then I recommend starting with Changing Places. For those who read Lodge, please tell me book which you consider his best.

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