The End of the Wasp Season

Title: The End of the Wasp Season
Writers : Denise Mina
Published: 2011
Genre: Thriller
My Rating: 2.5 on 5

A wealthy, abusive father/husband commits suicide by hanging himself. A woman who works as a bargirl/escort is brutally murdered by bashing her head beyond recognition. Cops find a truckload of cash stashed under a table in the kitchen. Alex Morrow, our detective, walks in to find the murderer and save the world.

This thriller stands apart from the rest of the books in its genres for the fact that readers already know who the murderer is. We only need to wait for Alex to put all the pieces together and solve the puzzle for us. To be honest, the whole suspense of whodunnit is spoilt. Once I know who the murderer is, I really don’t care why he/she did it.

Brownie points to the author for creating a smart, female detective character who happens to be solving cases while heavily pregnant with kids. This is where it ends for me, though. The plot, characters and the final ‘cracking the mystery’ was very meh! It is very hard to digest when the whole case gets solved because some random guy who is not connected to the case spills some beans to yet another random guy who happens to contact Alex.

I didn’t know this was a second book in a series when I read it. I did feel there was some backstory about Alex which I was missing, but this was no deterrent in following the case.

A not-so-intriguing plot, not-so-believable characters and the biggest letdown of all – knowing the murderer before the cops know it – all this makes this book a very disappointing read.

Uttarakaanda

Title: Uttarakaanda (Kannada)
Writers : S L Bhyrappa
Published: 2017
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

Reading has been going good this year so far. I have read quite a couple of books (and well ahead of my yearly goals), but not all of them were review worthy so did not get a mention on this blog. I am also consciously trying more local writing and this book was part of that attempt.

S L Bhyrappa is no stranger to Kannada people. He has many popular books under his belt and he is best known for his fluid writing and the subject he chooses which make you ponder. Compared to his other books, Uttarakaanda is touching a more common topic but is no less thought provoking.

Uttarakaanda is the story of Ramayana from the perspective of Sita. Bhyrappa has kept the story as is – no manipulations, no deviations (except for the part of Ahalya) but still manages to make you look at the often-told story in a completely different light. The book is written in Sita’s POV in first person narrative. It begins at the time Rama throws out Sita from his kingdom and abandons her at Valmiki’s ashram. It then goes back and forth into past and present – meandering between Sita’s birth (or discovery), her childhood and her eventual marriage and her exile period.

While Sita is narrating her story, one cannot miss the importance Bhyrappa has given to highlight her relationship with the people around her. Owing to her unknown origins, she did not have a rosy childhood. While her father treated her like his own, she did not get the same treatment from her mother. She develops a very close bonding with her sister and cousins and eventually is respected and admired by the people in the entire kingdom. After her wedding, her narrative focus continues to be on her bitter-sweet relationship with her husband. While she is happy and proud that she gets to be the wife such a well respected man, she also finds Rama aloof and unemotional. She expects him to emote and express but finds him still and stagnant, no matter the situation.

The story continues through their exile and her eventual kidnapping by Ravana and the rest and then culminates in Sita’s death. All through the journey, Sita’s pain and suffering is so eloquently expressed that one feels angry and sad on Sita’s behalf. Her undoubted dedication to her husband but being doubted by the same person and finally being thrown away – Sita’s love turns into hatred for Rama. Her moment of triumph comes when Rama asks her to come back during his yagna but she flatly refuses. We will never know what Rama went through, but Sita is in a state of moral victory.

Sita ends up being in Lanka, in the midst of hundreds of enemies and a lustful king for many years. She continues to stand her ground, keep up her fight and never lets her resolve waiver and this is what is considered as the greatest victory of Sita. Any other woman in her place might have weakened and accepted death as a welcome alternative. I was hoping to see this as the main focus of the book, but it isn’t as elaborate as I had hoped it would be.

There is no surprise either in the story or the characters. But to see the same saga being retold from Sita’s eyes and to read it in Bhyrappa’s words make this book a very engaging read. If you are looking for answers for some age old questions, you will not find them here. If anything, it will only increase your list of questions.

 

The Chimp Paradox

Title: The Chimp Paradox: The Acclaimed Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness
Writers : Steve Peters
Published: 2012
Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help
My Rating: 4 on 5

With so many self-help books on the market (on the library shelf, in this particular incident),  I was wary of picking up this one which claimed to help me achieve ‘success, confidence and happiness’ all at once. I flipped through the pages right there in the library as I was curious to know how the author plans to do this. As I started reading the first chapter, I was hooked. And the book naturally came home with me.

Steve Peters is a well-known psychiatrist who is said to have helped many sportspeople in managing their minds which helped them win Olympic medals. Peters starts off with explaining that our mind is made up of two parts – Human (the logical part) and Chimp (the emotional, irrational part). He uses some real-life incidents to explain how we react and behave depending on whether Human or Chimp is in control. He also creates a ‘Computer’ which contains basic autopilots on how you will behave depending on your past experiences. Peters also introduces Gremlins and Goblins which are some undesired behaviors/autopilots which the Chimp has installed in the Computer. He also introduces some moons of confidence and whatnot, which to be honest was a bit too much for me.

There is nothing new in what Peters puts forth – we all know there is a rational and irrational part in us and we behave differently depending on which part is pulling the strings. But the way Peters creates two images – Human and Chimp – and explains when each one of these are in control is eye-opening. He suggests some exercises at the end of the chapters which really help. He goes on to explain the differences between Goblins and Gremlins and how we need the moon of confidence and happiness to balance the solar system. This is where I lost interest and I just flipped the pages to get it over with.

I have always had a problem with anger and I have tried quite a few things to manage it. With the help of exercises in the book, I realized my Chimp is much more in control than my Human (no surprises there) and I learnt how to handle my Chimp. I can feel the anger rising up in me but immediately my Human comes into picture and the Chimp goes to a corner and gets busy eating a banana. I have started feeling calmer and less angry ever since I started practicing this. I have taught a trick or two to my 8-year old son too and I see it working with him as well.

This book does not offer any groundbreaking theory or solution – there is nothing new which we don’t know already. But the book works because it has laid out commonly known facts in simple terms and it offers practical solutions to handle situations. I have been going ga-ga over this book and ‘Human’, ‘Chimp’ and ‘Banana’ have become part of our common lingo at my family these days.

 

 

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The Forgotten Garden

Title: The Forgotten Garden
Writers : Kate Morton
Published: 2008
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

This came out way back in 2008 and it was always in my radar since then. I kept hearing and reading about how good this book is, so I have no idea why I hadn’t read this book till now. Now that I read it and enjoyed it, I am kicking myself why I didn’t pick this up earlier.

The Forgotten Garden spans across four generations – we have an abandoned child, a children’s book author who goes missing, a suitcase with personal things which is kept a secret from its owner and of course, the mysterious garden. The book starts with Nell, one of the central characters, learning on her 21st birthday that the family she grew up with is not hers by birth and that she was found abandoned on a ship and was ‘adopted’ by this family. With her world completely shaken, Nell vows to find her real family and her roots. Cut to the present time and we have Cassandra, Nell’s granddaughter, who sets out on a similar journey, only this time to reveal what secrets her grandmother had kept.

The book goes back and forth between different generations, times and geographical locations. Nell was found abandoned on Australian shore and she finds herself going to England to find her roots. Nell has a children’s story book in her suitcase and the author takes us to the previous generation where the author, Eliza, of the story book grew up as a girl. Eliza was orphaned and was adopted by her maternal uncle, much to her aunt’s chagrin. She grows up with her cousin Rose and her much loved garden. This garden turns out to be her heaven, where she seeks refuge whenever she needs time, space and peace.

There are many strong women characters, each one distinct and different from one another. While we have an air of mystery and stubbornness with Eliza, Nell comes across as an introvert and of contemplative nature. And then we have Cassandra who is more soft and emotional. Eliza’s Aunt is also a very strong character with her motherly responsibilities coming first before anything else. Rose too shines at times – especially when we get to see her contrasting against Eliza.

This book is labeled as a mystery – which it definitely is. But the “mystery” is nothing breath-stopping or jaw-dropping. For me, this book is much more than the mystery element. I could relate to the characters in the book and could understand why they behaved the way they did. I see a lot of Nell bashing in reviews as to how ungrateful she is for treating her adopted family the way she did. While I felt the same for some time, I can understand looking back why Nell behaved this way.

The mysterious garden takes center stage of the book, paying homage to The Secret Garden. The author goes to great length to describe the beauty and the mystery of the garden and the maze. While she describes how Eliza feels at home at the garden, I felt a longing to have a little space for myself in this world.

When Breath Becomes Air

Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Writers : Paul Kalanithi
Published: 2016
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of Paul Kalanithi, who was a neurosurgeon and who passed away at a very young age due to lung cancer. This book is a record of his short but fruitful life and his brave journey of staring death in its face until he finally embraced it. Kalanithi was an English Major with his goal set on getting into literature and becoming a writer. He was interested in knowing what makes humans think, where do brain and mind connect and during the course of his life, changes his direction from writing to become a neurosurgeon.

Kalanithi ponders about this role as a surgeon when he has to make decisions which could cost or save a life. He also wonders how surgeons are bearers of bad news – patients are informed about their terminal illness and relatives are informed about the death of their loved ones. He sees the mysterious working of human brain when he meets patients who speak only in numbers or who appear to be in another world altogether.

When Kalanithi is in his final year of residency with dreams in his eyes of making it big in the medical world, life gives him a wake-up call as cancer comes knocking on his door. Even as a doctor, he can’t help but live in denial that it is not cancer but some stray pain in the body. When the news is confirmed, Kalanithi is devastated and so is his wife, but as doctors, they immediately kick into a action mode. They consult the best oncologist and thus begins Kalanithi’s treatment.

Death may be a one time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.

This book has no spoilers – we all know Kalanithi dies. The journey from turning from a neurosurgeon into a cancer patient and the moral questions that he asks and answers on the way is the meat of this book. During his first visit to this oncologist, all he wants to know is how much time does he have to live. His doctor refuses to answer that and instead veers him to look at his values and live by them. Kalanithi has plans in life.

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: what was I supposed to do with that day?

There is no self pity or melodrama in Kalanithi’s voice. It comes straight from the heart and touches yours. The afterword by Kalanithi’s wife is heart breaking. I cried and sobbed while reading her chapter.

Does this book answer questions on morality? Not really. But Kalanithi does show us how to live life fully, no matter how short it is. He also shows how to die – staring death right into its face and embracing it with a smile.

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Whistling Past the Graveyard

Title: Whistling Past the Graveyard
Writers : Susan Crandall
Published: 2013
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

I have realized that I have a special affinity towards books with children as their central character. ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and ‘My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry’ are some books that come to my mind. Added to that list is the latest one I read ‘Whistling Past the Graveyard’.

This book is about 9 year Starla who lives with her paternal grandmother (Mammie) as her father works at an oil rig faraway and her mother is in another town trying to become a famous singer. Starla is feisty, strong and stubborn and longs for the day when her mom will acheive her dreams and takes Starla with her, where her father too can join and their small family will be complete. She is brought up by her Mammie whose worst fear is Starla will turn out like her mother and hence uses strict rules to keep Starla in check.

While Starla and Mammie always had a not so loving relationship, things turn really sore on the Fourth of July when Starla is grounded in her room for something and she sneaks away to see the fireworks. She gets caught and she decides to run away rather than be sent to the reform school as per Mamie’s usual threats. She sets out on foot with no food and water to reach Nashville, where she is sure her mother would welcome her with open arms and keep her safe. On the way, she asks for a ride from a black woman, Eula, who is traveling with a white baby.

What starts out as a harmless ride in a stranger’s car turns out to be the most memorable, eye-opening and enriching experience of her lifetime – not just for Starla but Eula too. Eula has her own demons to fight – troubled childhood, teen pregnancy, lost baby and an abusive husband. Starla and Eula make up a great team where they fight for the same thing but in their own ways.

Starla and Eula’s journey along with baby James takes them to different towns and people. The highlight of this journey is the segregation and how badly black were treated back then (1963, where the book is set). Language of the book  mimics the language used in those days. The book is written in Starla’s POV and it is extremely difficult to see the world through a child’s eyes and describe that world to an audience mostly comprised of adults. (How do you explain sexual violence through a child’s POV?) The author, Susan Crandall, does an excellent job of this and keeps the child’s voice alive throughout the book.

What will remain with me though are the characters. Starla and Eula are poles apart but still similar deep down owing to their principles and good heart. These two vaguely reminded me of the characters in ‘Secret life of bees’ – quite a few similarities in the story too. This was an enjoyable read which raised some very important questions about how we treat our fellow human beings. What will continue to linger on with me is Starla and her feistiness.

I will leave you all with this excerpt from the book on why the reason behind the book’s title.

My daddy says that when you do somethin’ to distract you from your worstest fears, it’s like whistlin’ past the graveyard. You know, making a racket to keep the scaredness and the ghosts away. He says that’s how we get by sometimes. But it’s not weak, like hidin’… It’s strong. It means you’re able to go on.

Finders Keepers

Title: Finders Keepers
Writers : Stephen King
Published: 2015
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

Finders Keepers is the name of the detective agency run by Bill Hodges, who is a retired policeman. This is the second book in the Bill Hodges trilogy, something I did not know when I read the book. I read it as an independent book in itself and I really didn’t miss the background story of the first book.

The story has a book lover, Morris Bellamy, at the center who is obsessed with Jimmy Gold, a fictitious character brought to life by the author Rothstein. Morris loves the first book in the Gold trilogy, but is upset about how the author turns Jimmy’s character in the next two books. When he learns that Rothstein has been writing for more than a decade without publishing anything, he has a sliver of hope that Jimmy’s character has been redeemed in the unpublished books. Morris stages a burglary in which he steals all of Rothestein’s unpublished work and cash and ends up murdering the author. He buries his loot at a deserted place near his house but before he can reap the benefits of his theft, he is sentenced to prison for life for another unrelated crime which he commits under the influence of alcohol.

While Morris is living out his life in prison with Rothestein’s books being the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel, we also follow Pete’s life whose family ends up living in the same house which was Morris’s house once. Pete discovers the buried treasure by accident and he puts it to good use. He uses the money to bring his family out of financial and emotional pit and he devours Routhstein’s books.

Our detective Hodges enters the scene just when these two stories meet. Hodges plays a not so crucial role in tying the loose ends together. We also get a glimpse of Brady, who is the evil protagonist from the first book in the trilogy. Brady steals a car and runs over a few people at a job fair and one of the people affected is Pete’s father. That is how this book is connected to the first book, but this connection is insignificant.

I loved the book’s plot – to have character/book obsession at the center of the plot is something new. I was shocked to find myself relating so well to Morris – am I borderline obsessed too? There definitely are weak points – Pete and Morris ending up at the same house, both sharing the same love (read obsession) for the same character, Pete ending up finding the treasure – too many coincidences, but, well, that’s what makes the story interesting.

The weakest point is the climax. There is so much of build up to the story’s peak point when Pete meets Morris (even the chapter has an ominous name – boy and the wolf or some such thing) and the actual moment falls like a thud. The end is predictable but King could have made it more plausible.

This is unlike the other crime thrillers where the reader also does not know who the culprit is and the reader is in the same phase as the detective, trying to decipher the clues and figuring out who the culprit is. With this book, the reader knows all along who it is and how the stories are connected. Despite this, there is an element of curiosity – more about what happens next rather than whodunnit. What should have been the icing on the cake  – the climax – is disappointing, thus it leaves a bitter aftertaste.

I am not a big fan of Stephen King – I stay away from his supernatural thrillers, so I don’t know how his other books are. Compared to the other crime thrillers I have read – this not the best, but an average read.