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.

H is for Hawk

Title: H is for Hawk
Writers : Helen Macdonald
Published: 2014
Genre: Non-fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

H is for Hawk is in parts a memoir, in parts a dissection of T.H. White’s life and review of his book ‘The Goshawk’, and in parts an adventurous journey into the world of goshawks. Helen is devastated when her father passes away unexpectedly leaving her to cope with the grief. Having trained many falcons in her life, she naturally turns to her avian friends to find solace. She chooses to train a goshawk and she sees her own feral temperament reflected in the bird. She buys a baby goshawk and spends days holed up in her apartment making friends with the goshawk and training it.

The focus of the book is mainly on the author training the goshawk. Her hesitation on deciding whether this is a wise thing to do (can she be dealing with another living being when she herself is drowning in grief) and her anxiety when she is choosing the hawk (will the hawk accept her and what if it rejects her) and her fear of failure (“I am overfeeding her” or “I am starving her”) and the ultimate fear of losing the hawk while on a hunt – comes through so well through the pages that at time I almost gasped or cried with Helen. While Helen is training the hawk and teaching it to hunt, she realizes the real reason why she decided to take up this challenge.

I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.

While the main thread of the book is about the goshawk, there is a strong parallel thread about Helen’s grief. She tries to find words to express her grief, share it with her mother and brother and ways to come to terms with it. She reads a lot of books on grief, talks to therapist, goes on a course of anti-depressants but still feels that hole left in her heart. In her attempt to explain her grief, Helen says:

Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It is from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.

Imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone.

The writing is simply beautiful. Helen has a way of expressing herself – be it the beauty of the wild or the pain in heart – she describes it to beautifully that you are right next to her feeling everything she is feeling.

The author is highly influenced by T.H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’ which she had read as a child (and hated) and she turns back to this book to use a reference when she is training her own hawk. Instead of just sticking to White’s experience of training his hawk, Helen tries to decipher why White went through what he did. His troubled childhood (mother abandons him and never gets his father’s approval), difficult adolescence (he is sent to a boarding school where he is sexually abused), and an even worse adulthood (he realizes he is homosexual and the world doesn’t accept him) and White has to prove himself to the world again and again. His decision of training a hawk is along the same lines – to prove a point rather than for his love for hawks – and that is why White and his hawk suffer through the ordeal and fail miserably in the end.

Let me admit, I had no idea what a goshawk was until I read the book (I still don’t know how to pronounce it, BTW). This world of falcons, hawks and training them to take them on hunts is a whole new world to me which I absorbed with the curiosity of a child. Every object (jesses), technique (whistling to call the hawk back) and the bird’s actions (bating, snaking) in falconry has a word and it was amazing to learn this whole new vocabulary. While this was the part I enjoyed, the part where Helen takes her hawk to hunt pheasants, pigeons and rabbits was disturbing. The author does raise the ethical question of whether it is right to hunt with hawks. Her justification didn’t convince me and I still think it is wrong, but I don’t want that to change my love for the book.

I picked this up with an attitude of ‘not my cup of tea, but let’s this a try’ and was captivated and amazed by the book all the way through. I learnt a lot of new things (alarum is a valid word, though archaic, did you know?) and not just about hawks. I am glad I decided to give this book ‘a try’.

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.

 

 

 

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’.

Lean In

Title: Lean In
Writers : Sheryl Sandberg
Published: 2013
Genre: Non Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

Around a year back, everybody I know had read this book and was talking about it. It was as if the world was taken up by a storm and everywhere I see, I was seeing references to this book. I read the blurb of this book and I was intrigued. As a working woman (and a working mother), I wanted to know what advice Sheryl Sandberg had to give me and so I bought the book.

Sandberg starts off with the facts that we already know. Women are underpaid, the man-woman ratio in the corporate industry is pathetic and working women play a tug of war between home and work. It was somewhat consoling to know that the COO of Facebook faces the same kind of issues that an average woman faces. What I really wanted to know is how she tackles them.

From the point of view of solving these issues, I don’t see this book being very useful. Sandberg shares her issues and insecurities and tells us how she dealt with them, but just like with most things in life, these are very subjective and may not work for everybody. I cringed when I read that a woman would make her kids sleep in school-wear to save 15 mins in the morning. Does it work? May be. Would I do it? No way. Also, having a spouse who is more flexible than you are and also affordable and reliable childcare is not available for everybody. In India, even if I am ready to spend on childcare, it is difficult to find one which is trustworthy. Mainly because there are no strict regulations for day care centers and even if they are, they aren’t really followed. These are some issues that no Sandberg can solve.

Some of the things that Sandberg mentions are eye-openers. Not speaking up in meetings, tending to stay behind shadows, not negotiating for salary hard enough and so on. She also talks about how it is acceptable to switch jobs even when you are or planning to be pregnant. She might be open minded enough to hire a pregnant woman (and Marissa Mayer for switching jobs), but not all organizations are like that. I personally know of a case where a woman’s offer letter was withdrawn when they realized she is pregnant. Of course, no organization is dumb enough to cite this as a reason, but this still happens.

Sandberg comes across as someone who thinks a woman’s life is valued as long as she is working or doing something worthwhile like charity. I take an issue with this. A woman can just be at home, cooking and cleaning and taking care of kids and still be valued, as long as that is what the woman wants to do.

While I didn’t really get all the answers I was looking for, I was glad to know women all over the world are constantly battling the same issues that I am. It gives me some solace that I am not alone. I would recommend this book to every woman, working or otherwise. You can always take away something from this book.

 

The woman who went to bed for a year

This book, as the title says, is about a woman who went to bed and did not get up for a year. The title was intriguing, so I picked up the book with a lot of expectations. Sadly, the title turned out to be the only intriguing part of the book.

Eva sends her twins off to college and decides to go to bed to get some rest. As she lies in bed, she realizes she doesn’t want to get up at all and continues to stay there as the rest of the world carries on without her. Her mother and her husband think she has gone nuts and seek medical help only to make matters worse. Interesting characters, or atleast the author tried to make them interesting, pop in and out all through the book, but all of them fail to increase the likeability of the book.

This book was supposed to be “laugh out loud” funny, but I didn’t see a single humorous part in the book. The plot was interesting, but the author failed to turn into a readable book. The book turned into a big bore and every time I saw in on my bedside, I would cringe because I had to read it. So, I will confess that I did not finish the book. I just couldn’t and there are very few books which I have left unread. This was my first Sue Townsend book and I am so disappointed with it, that I would be wary of trying any other books of hers.

This doesn’t really qualify as a review because I didn’t read the book completely. But, I read enough to know that I will not like it. So there.