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Of Books and Reading by Thehungryreader - 2d ago

Title: Winter
Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 978-1101870754
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

If there’s one living writer, who sums the way we live, right down to precision and exactness, it is Ali Smith. According to me, at least. “Winter” is more than just the second instalment of the seasonal quartet. It is so many things, rolled into one that I do not know where to begin talking about it, but start, I must.

“Winter” in its entirety could also be a collection of puns, word play and humour that cannot be digested by all. Scottish writer Ali Smith takes on a step further in this one than she did in “Autumn” – the first part of the quartet.  As I was telling my book club members yesterday, as we discussed Winter, “Ali Smith sure has a way of drawing the reader in, right to the bottom of her world and then there is no letting go”.

I, initially had a tough time reading Winter, but twenty pages in and I knew I was sold – hook, line and sinker. It is a family drama and a commentary on the sociopolitical changes (as most of Smith’s books are). “Winter” is mainly about relationships if you ask me. There are three estranged folks in a family and an impostor. The plot: Sophie lives all by herself in Cornwall. She is in her 60s and has started seeing a floating head for no reason (for this, you have to read the book – no spoiler here and won’t be speaking much about this).

It is Christmas Time. Her son, Arthur, who writes a successful nature blog is scheduled to visit her with his girlfriend Charlotte. Charlotte and Art have broken up over a fight of ideals (again, read). Art finds Lux – a Croatian to impersonate as Charlotte, instead of telling his mother the truth. And then there is Iris, Sophie’s estranged sister who is also visiting, though uninvited. The book is about family, dynamics of the self and how the society has changed and continues to when it comes to technology, politics, the environment and human emotions to say the very least.

What I loved the most about “Winter” is the way Ali Smith breathes life into the monotonous activities – going to the bank, buying groceries, or even just being. She has a quiet way of describing events, people and relationships. Ultimately to me, “Winter” is a book that asks what it is like to live today? What it is to be today in tune with the world and not and what implications it might have? At the end of it all, Ali Smith’s “Winter” at the core is about art, love, life – what it once was and what it is today.

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Title: The Worm and the Bird
Author: Coralie Bickford-Smith
Publisher: Particular Books, Penguin
ISBN: 9781846149221
Genre: Picture Book
Pages: 64
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Is it even a book read, if it is a picture book? I say, why not? A book is a book is a book. Different genres are still counted as books, isn’t it? Picture books read are still counted as read books according to me and that’s quite alright.

Now that that is out of the way, let’s talk about, “The Worm and the Bird”.  This book is about a worm and a bird (as you might have rightly guessed, duh!) and the different things they want and how they almost get it or they do for that matter. Under the earth, the worm needs more space. Above the earth, the bird searches for something else. And that’s what the book is. Of course, what makes it so endearing are the illustrations and what one doesn’t expect (which I will not reveal) as well.

Coralie Bickford-Smith’s earlier book, “The Fox and the Star” was a delight and so is this one. “The Worm and the Bird” is also about the shortness of life, but it also rings true of how life should be lived. Being a picture book, it cannot get preachy at all, which it isn’t.

“The Worm and the Bird” is the kind of book which has to be read and appreciated by people of all ages. It is a lesson, but beyond that it is also to be read because of the stunning illustrations, the ink artwork and to get back to understand how stories are told.

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Title: Hush A Bye Baby
Author: Deepanjana Pal
Publisher: Juggernaut
ISBN: 978-9386228574
Genre: Suspense and Thriller
Pages: 264
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Why am I reading this book?

Do you ask yourself this as you turn the page of a book you do not seem to enjoy? I know I have asked this question and dropped the book even without knowing the answer. Off-late it has happened a lot more, so I have become quite judicious about my choices. Do I want to read this at all? And if I do, why?

I am not a fan of the thriller genre. I enjoy it now and then but not a fan of the genre, so to say. “Hush A Bye Baby” by Deepanjana Pal on the other hand made me stay up all night, demanding to be read and for that I missed a Riverdale episode (I never miss a Riverdale episode. It is so bad that I love it!). Let me also add here that the experience was rewarding.

Now, within the first ten pages you know whodunit. So that’s that about this book. But why did she do what she did? For that you have to read the book, cover to cover.

The setting: Bombay (or Mumbai as you might choose to call it).

Plot, in brief (because if I say more about it, will you even read the book?): Dr. Nandita Rai is a well-known gynecologist. She consults celebrities and is on media every other week speaking of women’s issues. She is your not-so-typical South Mumbai feminist (a post on South Mumbai feminist is due later sometime). She is the poster girl for every expecting mother, till the police raid her clinic, when she is accused of sex selective abortions. And this is where the why comes into the picture. Enter: Sub-Inspector Reshma Gabuji who is relentless when it comes to this case and will go all out to uncover the truth.

This is the plot really. Of course, there is more but for review purposes, this shall suffice. Deepanjana’s take on Bombay is superb. I just wish there was more of Bombay. Nandita’s character checks all the right boxes, but my personal favourite was Reshma all the way. Both Nandita and Reshma are witty (that obviously comes from Deepanjana being that way and if you don’t know how witty she is, then you must watch her videos on YouTube), independent and gregarious women.

I loved how Deepanjana leaves so many clues and paces them well in the first-half of the book, keeping in pace with all the thrills. What didn’t work for me was the end, though it did make sense, just that I felt it was too rushed. At the same time, what worked brilliantly (amongst so many other things) was the fact that finally someone in India wrote about sex-selective abortions and women’s rights – all rolled in to a pot-boiler, page-turner thriller. It drives the point home without being too pedantic. There are other secrets as well that come out from the closet, but like I said, for that you have to read the book.

“Hush A Bye Baby” is all that you will expect from a thriller and it will deliver that and more. A perfect flight-read or a summer afternoon read when you think you have nothing to do, but you can read. So read this book already.

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Title: Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
Author: Danez Smith
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977856
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I think for the longest time I avoided reading poetry as a genre because I was scared. Prose will kill you. Let me correct that: Good prose will kill you. Great prose will leave you bereft. Or the other way around, but once poetry gets into your veins, you are an addict my friend! There is no way out of it. I was introduced to Neruda. Never say never also might work brilliantly as an adage.

Circa 2018. I love poetry. I love poems that seize my heart and wring it with ease. Sometimes brutally. I failed to keep my promise. Why am I saying all this? Well, because I have just finished reading a brilliant book of poems and I want to let you know how I feel about it. The book in question: “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith.

This collection isn’t an easy one to read. If you are planning to read it at a stretch or even in one-sitting, my recommendation is you don’t. Smith doesn’t make poetry floral or sweet-smelling or even bearable for that matter. When it comes to me, I agree with him. Poetry like most form of art only reflects what exists around us and should with very good reason.

“…paradise is a world where everything
is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun…” 

Just by reading these two lines, I was moved like I haven’t been moved in a while. The idea that every place is sanctuary (so remote, isn’t it?) and that nothing is a gun couldn’t have rung truer than it does now. The now that we live in that Danez writes about so and that hits so hard.

Smith’s voice is much needed for everyone, but more so for the black men, for the young black man, the gay man, the kind who have endured a history of oppression and violence or have heard of it. It is for everyone who wants to change the world by reading and understanding and that empathy shines through Danez’s poems. The beauty in all of them is striking, almost heartbreaking even.

Take this one for example, where the loneliness of the gay man is stark and evident, universal that it strikes a chord one way or the other.

“everyone on the app says they hate the app but no one stops

I sit on the train, eyeing men, begging myself to talk to them

 He whispers his name into my lower mouth
I sing a song about being alone”

Danez Smith does not shy away from expressing. Some poems run into pages and lots of pages (and for good reasons) while others are explained briefly and they are as effective as any other poem in the collection. This isn’t micro-poetry. This isn’t slam poetry. It is life, that seeps, bleeds ad yearns through the veins and the pores.

“Don’t Call Us Dead” is set in a time – our time, which is equal parts scary, liberating and melancholic. Let me remove my proverbial hat and tip it for Smith.

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Title: The Great Alone
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 978-1447286004
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

The Great Alone is a story of wilderness and survival. I also think to a large extent it is the story of what it takes to rebuild and reconstruct life amidst tragedy (seemingly) and secrets (intentionally kept). This enough should get you to read this book. However, I shall tell you more so you do for sure read this one.

“The Great Alone” begins with Ernt Allbright dragging his wife, Cora and his daughter, Leni into a wilderness experience to Alaska to run away from his demons. Ernt has come home from the Vietnam War – a changed and hostile man. His daughter is thirteen and on the brink of adolescence. She is caught in her parents’ tumultous relationship and only wants some peace of mind. Mother and daughter will both follow the man wherever he takes them. They just want a new beginning.

In all of this, is Alaska. The daunting land, the unknown terrain that they enter and as winter approaches they realize that things aren’t what they thought it would be. Hannah’s writing seems simple initially, but as the layers run deep, it becomes complex. Not that any of it isn’t readable but there is so much going on that you have to pause and think about what you just read.

Alaska in itself is a major character. The bleakness, the winter and the darkness, coupled with Ernt’s fragile mental state, Lena and Cora are locked in for eighteen hours in their small cabin. The action has only begun. The terrors from within show up and that’s where I will not say anything more and wait for you to read the book.

Hannah’s writing is terrifying in this one. “The Nightingale” was a relatively tender book. “The Great Alone” demands writing (which the author delivers) that explores the dark recesses of the mind, the heart and the soul. It is a story of immense loss and how to perhaps recover or not from it. Kristin Hannah does a stupendous job of exploring emotions – the dark side and the ones in the light and what happens when the two merge. I would highly recommend this title.

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Title: Longform Volume 1: An Anthology of Graphic Narratives
Edited by Sarbajit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Sekhar Mukherjee and Pinaki De
Publisher: HarperCollins India
ISBN: 978-9352775972
Genre: Graphic Novel, Graphic Anthology
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Graphic novel love began way back for me, in about 2006, I think. Landmark at Infiniti Mall, Andheri had just opened. My friend N and I used to love meeting there (for obvious reasons, of course) and before we knew we used to finish reading graphic novels, right there. We would buy them as well. After all, we knew what it was like for authors to not make money. That was then. I also vividly remember my first graphic novel – read in 2004 (yeah, at that time I did not know it was called a graphic novel), called “Maus”. I also think “Maus” is like the initiation to graphic novels. Either that or “Persepolis”. And today, graphic novels are the rage. Easier to read, linger in your memories a lot longer and a popular genre by far in the country.

“Longform: Volume 1” is a fantastic anthology of graphic narratives. I honestly do not even know where to start praising it. I am not saying this because I love HarperCollins books. I say this, because, after PAO, published by Penguin India, this is the second of its kind anthology in the country – which readers so deserve and want and there should be more of such anthologies. While “PAO” focused mainly on Indian artists and storytellers, “Longform” takes it a step further to involve artists from all parts of the world, thereby providing the reader with a stunning word and image experience.

It was very difficult for me to consolidate my thoughts for this review. Where does one begin talking about a book this diverse? Or should one even attempt? Well, one must do what one should and what one can I suppose. From the legendary (rarely) to the mythical, to the political to the romantic, “Longform” touches on almost every single genre and within that, there is a world of other art forms that seem to be born. Whether it is just simple line drawing or the more complex art form, the reader cannot choose what to focus on – the art or the story. Everything then matters in the grand scheme of the book that you hold in your hand.

“Longform” also doesn’t restrict itself to the graphic form alone. While it is majorly only that, there are also snippets of interviews, back stories of artists and authors and the ideation process as well, which of course, only adds to the magnificence of the book. I also am not mentioning any pieces in particular, because I honestly would love readers and graphic form enthusiasts to be intrigued a little more about this book, go out and pick it up, nestle in your favourite reading spot and devour it cover to cover, only to start all over again.

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Title: Where the Dead Sit Talking
Author: Brandon Hobson
Publisher: Soho Press
ISBN: 978-1616958879
Genre: Coming of Age
Pages: 288
Source: Author
Rating: 5 Stars

Coming of age stories are always appealing to me. Somewhere or the other, they spring up and I read them and get all nostalgic about growing-up too soon or growing-up and not realizing that it happened. “Where the Dead Sit Talking” is one such book. Also, might I add here that coming-of-age stories could also take place at a time when you are also an adult, however, this one is set on the brink of adolescence and is illuminating and intensely psychological at the same time.

“Where the Dead Sit Talking” is not a regular coming of age book. It is raw, jagged at the edges and tackles some major issues such as child abuse, abandonment, alcoholism and neglect without any pretense. Also, to some extent it draws on the flaws of the American foster care system (I’ve always wondered how efficient that is, but I guess there is another book for that at another time).

The book is set in the late ‘80’s, Sequoyah a fifteen-year-old, is the narrator of the book. He has moved from one foster home to another (his mother is serving jail time), till he seems to settle with this one family in Little Crow and that’s where the story begins. He forms an instant connection with one of the other foster children there – Rosemary and that forms the crux of the book.

The thing about this book is that it doesn’t sugar coat brutality. It is there for all to read and experience, no matter if you are cringing or don’t want to turn another page (which you wouldn’t want to, because this book is that good), read you must.

Hobson’s characters are so flawed and waiting for redemption so long, that you start hoping for them. Brandon’s prose is simple and yet striking, it is layered and easy to read, which to me are fantastic about very few books. Also, the Native-American narrative is so needed (was always needed) and comes out powerfully in the book. At the heart of it though, “Where the Dead Sit Talking” is about humans – battered, lonely, the ones who do things and then regret and sometimes there is no regret as well. It is a book waiting to share its secrets with you, it is more than just a coming-of-age book – the one that will move and haunt you in equal measure.

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Of Books and Reading by Thehungryreader - 2w ago

Title: Missing
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN:978-9386021991
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 267
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

There are some books that seep deep into​ your skin and sometimes you don’t even realize what they have done. “Missing” for me is one of those books. The premise as the title suggests might be that of a missing person, in this case, a missing woman, but at the core, it is about parts that go missing of ourselves and sometimes, actually most of the time, we don’t even know it.

“Missing” by Sumana Roy is so much more than what meets the eye, that it will be very difficult for me to explain what is going on in the book and in effect, what I felt as I turned its pages.

“Missing” is the kind of book that sneaks up on you in ways you wouldn’t imagine (when I say this, I mean it with the utmost good intentions). It is the summer of 2012. A young girl is molested in Guwahati. Kobita, a fifty-four-year-old activist, based out of Siliguri decides to travel to Guwahati to search for the molested girl who has gone missing. Her blind husband and poet, Nayan, is left at home, constantly waiting to hear from her. They have a son, Kabir, who is doing his research in England, on the Hill Cart road that connects Siliguri to Darjeeling. The book is about the seven days that happen in the month of July, 2012.

I will tell you why I loved Missing so much. “Missing” is a book about common people, going through life, leading seemingly common lives, till something happens. The relationship of Nayan and Kobita (so ironic that their names mean eyes and poetry when translated) is so fragile and yet Roy very tactfully doesn’t show things to the reader, till a certain time has passed in the book. In all of this, there is the making of a new bed for Nayan and Kobita, and Nayan has no choice but to depend on the carpenter and his family when it is clear that Kobita will not return anytime soon.

“Missing” to me was also about relationships that are lost and at sea and perhaps have no chance of being repaired. Do you know how that feels? Has it ever happened to you?

The writing will leave you melancholic for days and if you still want to feel a little distraught and liberated at the same time, I recommend Roy’s other book, “How I Became A Tree”. Roy’s writing is not the usual run of the mill. Why do I love her writing? She doesn’t judge anyone through her writing. There is no right or wrong. Her narration skills are superlative and research on point.

All in all, what I think is: “Missing” is a book of dashed hopes, of wanting to account for more in life and above all about what it is that makes us human or not after all. It is a book that will make you feel differently in different points of the read and will perhaps also make you question what you believe in or not.

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Title: Not To Read
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
ISBN: 978-1910695630
Genre: Non-Fiction, Literary Essays
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I discovered, “Bonsai” by Alejandro Zambra in 2014 and since then I have never looked back. I’ve read all his books and all I can say is that I am glad he exists in the same universe as we do and continues to write. This time it was a collection of essays, some old and some new, collected in a book “Not to Read” and published by the very erudite folks at Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The thing about Zambra’s writing is the high level of engagement he was with his readers, even without meaning to I guess. You instantly relate to what he has to say about libraries, personal libraries and books in general. At the very superficial level it is this, but at a more constant and deeper level it is his writing which seems so effortless thanks to the translation really. McDowell has done a spectacular job of giving words to his thoughts and words of course in another language so smoothly, that you almost want to read the original (written in Spanish).

The essays are spread over three sections and each section, without a doubt is a joy to read. Zambra makes you travel with him, through his literature and also through his pieces on literature. I will for one never forget how he and his friends photocopied books as they were (and still are) very expensive to buy when they were students. What is most endearing is that even when he could afford to buy the originals, the photocopy stacks still remained on the shelves. Or the time when he visits a friend’s house and comments on the shelving of books and the technique used (a hilarious piece by the way).

Zambra’s writing connects with the reader in all of us and that’s why it is so accessible. Another thing about reading books about books is the discovery. Just by reading “Not to Read”, I have chanced upon a dozen or more writers I would’ve never known. Well, the glitch is that most of them aren’t translated to English but hey, I hope wanting to read them will finally make me enroll for Spanish classes. Anything that would make you read new authors, I suppose.

Alejandro Zambra has not praised or touched on the big Chilean writers – either because he doesn’t admire their writing, which is fair or because he sincerely feels there are alternatives (which I was glad to know of). This is a very important aspect of a book about books in my opinion – giving alternatives to what already exists. The cannons of literature will remain and revered, but we need something else to hold onto as well.

“Not to Read” can be read in one sitting (like I did) or better yet dip into it time and again, read an essay or two and mull over its magnificence. I am only too happy that more authors are writing about books and reading. One of my favourite genres so far. I strongly recommend everyone to read this book.

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Title: Force of Nature
Author: Jane Harper
Publisher: Flatiron Books, Macmillan USA
ISBN: 978-1250191663
Genre: Thriller and Suspense, Crime
Pages: 326
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3 Stars

I have not read “The Dry” yet. Please do not make a face at that statement. Please do not be prepared to kill me either, or for that matter be a snob about having read the debut of Jane Harper. Having said this (and thank God it is now out of the way), I thoroughly enjoyed, “Force of Nature”, her second book in the Aaron Falk (Federal Agent) series. So, calm down, because I will but obviously read, “The Dry” this month itself. Now back to this one!

I am not the kind to read suspense or thriller novels, but this one sure did catch my attention with its synopsis and I knew I had to devour this and devour I did. At the same time, while I thought it was well-written, I also found it to be quite slow and dragging in most places. So, this is what happens with suspense novels: You want to know what happened so badly, that perhaps it seems that the book is slow, or it may be really is very slow. “Force of Nature” for me belonged to the latter category.

Jane Harper builds the atmosphere superbly but somewhere down the line, I thought that the characters needed some more build-up. The plot is intriguing: Five women reluctantly head out on a forest hike and only four come out on the other side. What happened on the trail? What went wrong? To add to that, these five women are colleagues and know each other and also have some grudges to bear. The hike is arranged by the company (which is family-owned) for five men and five women and in all of this, the action plays out against Australia’s bushland.

Harper is a master of description. There is way too much of it, which only means that she successfully transports you Australia and its landscape. From the trees to the local falls to the animals and birds, you end up going on the hike yourself. In all of this, is the entry of Federal Police Agent, Aaron Falk (made his first appearance in The Dry) who has a vested interest in the whereabouts of the missing woman, Alice Russell, who also happened to be a whistleblower in his latest case involving the company she is working for.

“Force of Nature” starts off fantastically and ends on a high as well, but somewhere along the middle, I really did feel it could’ve ended sooner. At the same time, there is a lot going on in the book – all the interpersonal relationships that are glimpsed into but not spoon-fed (which is again very intelligent), leave you wanting more. I will for sure pick up “The Dry” sometime soon.

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