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.

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.

 

 

I Let You Go

Title: I Let You Go
Writer: Clare Mackintosh
Published: 2014
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 2 on 5

I decided to read this book after reading the rave reviews on Goodreads. Reviewers called this a psychological thriller and compared it to Gone Girl. I have read the latter and loved it so much that I blindly decided to read this one. I naturally had high expectations from this book and what an anti-climax this was. On every page of the book I was asking myself if I was reading the same book others are singing praises about.

Jenna Gray finds her life turned upside down after a tragic accident in which a 6 year old boy gets killed. She runs away from her past and just when she is settling down, her past comes haunting her. There are quite a few twists and turns in the story, which I cannot mention here without labeling this review as a spoiler. The ‘Big Twist’ which everybody is talking about is very well executed. I had to reread these pages to convince myself I was not misinterpreting it.

Characters are not well developed and Jenna hardly evokes any emotion. There are quite a few handful characters including Ray and Kate, who are the CID investigators, lack depth and their relationships with characters around them looks forced upon. The story starts with a bang and holds your interest for a few pages and then it slows down, never to pick up the pace again. What could have been a wonderful start to an interesting story just fizzles out. Writing is so poor at time I found myself shaking my head and going tut-tut. Shifting POVs (from first person in some chapters to third person in some) is really taxing and the voice/tone doesn’t change to show the difference.

I don’t know why this is labeled as ‘psychological thriller’ because it neither a thriller nor anything psychological about it. And the praising reviews and 5 stars on goodreads is still a mystery to me.

 

 

 

All the Light We Cannot See

Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Writers : Anthony Doerr
Published: 2014
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

This book is set in the WW2 era and follows two parallel threads of story which ultimately culminate. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is one of the protagonists who lives in France. She is the daughter of a locksmith who works at a museum and loses her eyesight at the age of 6. She grows up in the warmth of fatherly love and curiosity fueled by her father and books. Werner Pfennig, on the other hand, is an orphan and lives in Germany with his sister. He is anti-establishment and often questions the system. Two contrasting characters and backgrounds, but they come together in an unexpected way and leave a lasting impression on each other.

Marie and her relationship with her father is one of the things I like in this book. Instead of showering pity on his blind daughter, the locksmith teaches her all the tricks to become independent in life. He makes a miniature of the town they live in and encourages her to ‘know’ the town through her hands. Werner and his equally inquisitive sister find an old radio which they manage to repair. They are hooked onto a regular broadcast where they listen to an enchanting voice with a French accent explaining the mysteries of science.

WW2 breaks out and we see it affecting both our protagonists. While Marie and her father flee from Paris and settle down with Marie’s uncle at a remote, coastal town, Werner enlists into the army and is fighting a battle of ethics  vs. duty. The story takes twists and turns and we see some interesting characters and finally the highlight of the book – protagonists meeting. This is one of the memorable moments. It was as if the reader knows all along that they are destined to meet and waiting for it with bated breath.

The book is not a fast read. And shouldn’t be read in a hurry, if you ask me. The book is beautifully written and has very memorable characters. It tugs at your emotions and gives you yet another glimpse of the havoc that WW2 caused on common citizens.

Key takeaway for me is Marie’s determination. Not a minute does she doubt herself because of her blindness. She charges ahead, overcomes hurdles and comes out winner in every single fight. They way she pulls her uncle out of depression with her charm, questions and perseverance is amazing. I couldn’t relate to Werner as much as I could to Marie. Werner appears as a confused soul who has not yet decided what he wants to do or become. His gutsy sister on the other hand – can completely relate to her, especially when she is angry with his brother for destroying the radio.

In short, a book worth not only reading, but savoring.

 

The Girl on the Train

Title: The Girl on the Train
Writers : Paula Hawkins
Published: 2015
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

Girl on the Train refers to Rachel, who is a 30-something woman, divorced, alcoholic who commutes by train everyday for work. As she commutes in the same train and the familiar route everyday, she tends to develop an attachment with the dwellers of the house which line the railway track. She gives them names and concocts her own story about how happy/sad they are in their lives. She can also spot her own house, or at least which used to be hers before her divorce, where her ex-husband and his mistress-who-is-now-his-wife also live. The book is about Rachel, her reluctance to admit her divorce, her addiction to alcohol and the characters that she sees on her train journey. The story takes an interesting turn when one of the characters, one of Rachel’s favorite, disappears and Rachel may be involved in this.

When Rachel gets drunk, she ends up with a gaping hole in her memory and she can’t recall what happened. She happens to be present at the scene of disappearance, but she can’t remember whether she saw that girl as she was drunk. All she knows is she woke up the next day with a nasty blow on her head with blood streaming down her face. With the disappearance at the center of the plot, the other major characters get entangled in this story with Rachel being the most invested. She is emotionally invested as the disappeared girl is her “Jess” who she imagines to be very happy with her husband “Jason”.

The story is passe in terms of the mystery quotient. Some things are obvious and one can guess who the culprit is long before Rachel arrives at it. I liked the characters more than the story. Crime thrillers usually don’t spend time on characterization, but Paula breaks that trend. Rachel comes across as the depressed alcoholic who has lost all hopes and is desperately trying to find a meaning, a purpose to her life. Megan/Jess is another troubled soul who tugged at my heart. I wonder what it is that I can relate to these characters! Scott also has depth, but I wish Tom was etched better.

This book is a quick read with a decent mystery plot and interesting characters. Many people/websites recommended this book to me as I liked ‘Gone Girl’. The latter had psychological element to it and the characters brought the story to life, but the former doesn’t have these qualities. This book is an average one on its own, but not comparable to ‘Gone Girl’.

The Troubled Man

Title: The Troubled Man
Writers : Henning Mankell
Published: 2009
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

When I reviewed and discussed about the Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson on book forums, I heard many recommendations about crime fiction by Swedish authors. Among the many names that were recommended, Henning Mankell was repeated many times. I have read a few books by Mankell already and like them enough to read more books by the author. The Troubled Man is another crime thriller by Mankell, featuring his troubled inspector Kurt Wallander.

This book deals with the mystery of a man going missing, soon followed by his wife’s disappearance. Though Wallander is not assigned to the case, he is sucked into it as the disappeared man happens to be his daughter’s father-in-law. Hakan von Enke, a retired naval officer, goes on his morning walk as usual, but on the fateful day, never returns home from his walk. While the police and Wallander are playing with theories of kidnap and suicide, von Enke’s wife goes missing too. As the case is unraveled, we realize the roots go way back in time when von Enke was in the navy. Many secrets are revealed and many skeletons come tumbling out of the closet.

On a parallel line, we see Wallander’s health deteriorating with age. He notices incidents of memory loss suggesting the onset of Alzheimer’s. While Wallander is fighting his own battles, he is also fighting external forces as he reveals secrets which might shake his daughter’s and his own world.

As a crime thriller, this book is like any other Mankell book, with its strong plot and interesting twists. What makes this book special is the fact that this is the last book in the Wallander series. As Wallander’s mind deteriorates, it is clear that he cannot continue in this profession and that means the end of Wallander stories for the reader.

I have read many crime fiction books and there are many memorable lead characters. What makes Wallander memorable and stand out from the crowd is that he appears very human and readers can relate to him easily. Poirot and Holmes are in a different class altogether – by their place in society and their intelligence. Wallander is like any other common man, fighting the usual battles and working hard to earn his livelihood. He is not very happy in his life – divorced and guilt ridden for not giving his daughter a good upbringing. But, in the end, as his granddaughter arrives, he relives his daughter’s childhood and has many happy moments before Alzheimer’s completely engulfs him.

I am sad to see Wallander go, but I admire Mankell for giving this series a “natural” end rather than anything dramatic like him being killed or gone missing. It is a logical end to a great series and like Wallander, one which readers can relate to.