July 2020 in Books

A delayed summary of the books I read in July 2020. The titles last month covered a range of genres from historical fiction, memoir, horror, true crime, fantasy fiction, political thrillers and translated literature. I was lucky to have picked some stunning works and I’d recommend them all to anyone who likes these genres.

~The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun – A Korean-English translation of a psychological thriller described as a cross between Stephen King’s “Misery” and Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”. The protagonist finds himself paralyzed following a car accident that kills his wife. His mother-in-law is the only living family member, who takes it upon herself to be his caretaker, nurse, guardian, physiotherapist, by removing all experts from the scene, only to neglect him thereafter. An atmospheric novel depicting the horrors of isolation, loneliness, depression, helplessness, claustrophobia, the terrors of not knowing versus the brutality of knowing and being unable to do anything. The horror is subtle rather than in-your-face, unraveling as the novel does.  And a gorgeous cover, too, with its own significance in the story. 4/5

~Only in Spain by Nellie Bennett – A memoir of dance, food, travel, journeys and experiences. The author works as a saleswoman at a store in Sydney. A chance encounter with a Flamenco class at a local dance studio kicks off an obsession of sorts with the dance form, taking her to the place of its origin, Seville in Spain. This leads to a newfound love for the country, its culture and people, because the Flamenco is not just a dance but a way of life. An endearing narrative of the writer’s tryst with the dance form. A book sure to trigger fernweh and make you want to travel, dance, eat, learn new languages, and meet people. 4/5

~Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba – A Spanish-English translation based on the true story of an orphan who was killed by other children at an orphanage in Brazil, who ended up playing with her body parts for a week before the murder came to light. As horrifying as the event is, the prose is beautiful, hypnotic, lyrical. This book is not just about the story, but a lesson in writing itself. Disconcerting and heartbreaking but morbidly beautiful, a masterpiece of a work by translator Lisa Dillman who requires her own applause for this one. 5/5

~Ring by Koji Suzuki – A Japanese-English translation of the horror classic known by its many movie adaptations in both Japanese and English. A mysterious videotape that kills the viewer within one week of watching it. If the movies scared you, the book ups the ante by several notches, with a detailed narrative on the origins of the tape and how it works, along with the significance of the title. Eerie, disturbing, and chilling to the bone even without the iconic scene from the movies, a must-read in horror fiction. 5/5

~The Invisible by Seb Doubinsky – A political crime drama set around a mysterious hallucinogenic drug, with people getting killed on the way for knowing too much. Politics, crime, poetry, fantasy, an alternate universe of noir. A place where the culprit is not a person, but a system. A strange book that I came across on Meerkat Press, a publishing house that comes out with some very different, but very good books. 4/5

~The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski – A Polish-English translation of the Witcher’s origin story.  Written as a series of short stories, the reader is taken along Geralt of Rivia’s many adventures, interspersed with the present timeline as a prelude to later books in the series. Are monsters identified by their looks or behavior? A world of djinns, elves, wizards, sorceresses, spells and elixirs – brilliantly translated into English, retaining the wit and humor of the original. Fantasy fiction at its best with a wonderful character of the White Wolf, his choices and actions. 5/5

~The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali – Historical fiction delving into the political upheavals of Iran, a world of coups, poetry, letters, books, food, culture, immigration and more. A story about a tiny neighborhood stationery shop, and a story about everything else. A mix of epistolary and framing, past and present and parallel stories, Marjan Kamali is a powerful voice in Iranian literature, with a subtle yet effective narrative. 5/5

~Blanky by Kealan Patrick Burke – Set around the death of an infant caused by suffocating on her blanket, Kealan Patrick Burke brilliantly handles a dark theme in describing the horrors of losing a child and the associated sadness, loss, grief. A haunted blanket can be scary, but the ghosts outside are no match for the ones within. A book that deserves a read just for the writer’s take on the subject. 5/5

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June 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in the month of June.

~The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey – A memoir of a year spent with a woodland snail. The author suffers from a debilitating illness due to a viral pathogenic infection two decades ago. A visiting friend picks up flowers from the forest outside her house, unwittingly bringing along a hitchhiker of a snail which provides companionship and many life lessons on the way. Well written and researched, with ample literature about snails, conversations with malacological experts, and a wonderful glimpse into a curious world. 5/5

~Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson – The merging of neuroscience with contemplative practices and ancient meditative techniques that seek to explain the rewiring of the brain towards peace, well-being, wisdom and happiness. Change your brain to change your life. Informative with practical applicability, the writing style feels a tad drab. 3.5/5

~How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones – A coming-of-age memoir of living as a homosexual, Black man, practising Buddhism in a Catholic family. Beautifully blending poetry with prose, Jones’ haunting narrative captivates throughout – a powerful voice in today’s literary scene. 4/5

~The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa – An English translation of a Japanese book about a housekeeper with a ten-year old son, hired to care for a brilliant Math professor with a memory lasting only eighty minutes. A mesmerising story about the love for and beauty of numbers, living in the present, and the equations that form relationships – in Math and beyond. 5/5

~It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini – A teenager on the way to kill himself, makes a desperate call to a suicide helpline and gets himself checked into a resident program at a psychiatric hospital. His interactions and experiences with his fellow residents help him to confront the sources of his own anxiety. A book about depression, self-harm, OCD, schizophrenia, narrated through a fifteen-year old. A tough topic tackled with light humor addressing dark issues. 3.5/5

~Downward Facing Death by Neal Pollack – An ex-cop turned yoga teacher cum private investigator is hired by the FBI to investigate the death of a prominent Hollywood yoga guru. The narrative is simplistic and might not appeal to all, but the numerous yoga analogies make this a fun read for yoga practitioners. A hilarious and insightful outlook into the commercialization of yoga culture. 3.5/5

~The Guest List by Lucy Foley – A wedding party hosted on a secluded island, where neither the victim nor murderer are revealed till the end, making this a dual guessing game for the reader. An entertaining story that keeps you hooked till the end. I liked the shifting perspectives – almost feels like you’re on the guest list yourself, obtaining a first person account of the events leading up to the moment of the wedding, while reminiscing about the past and raising the question of how well do we know the people we know.  4/5

~You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann – An English translation of a German book, featuring a screen writer working on the sequel to his hit movie in a newly rented house in a secluded location. That the house has a life of its own becomes obvious on the first night itself. Rooms rotate, swivel, appear and disappear; windows reflect things and not people, basic Maths doesn’t apply to the measurements of the house’s dimensions, you exit a room only to enter the same room you left. The first person narrative  of the book flows parallel to the script being written, heightening the eerie atmosphere – are the narrator’s thoughts part of his fictional story, hallucinations, or observations of what’s happening? Gripping and haunting, closely blending the lines of psychological horror and ghostly horror. 4.5/5

~The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Hossain – Djinns and drones come together in this cauldron of fantasy fiction and science fiction. A djinn king awakens after millennia of slumber, finding an ally in a Gurkha, to take over a new kingdom to rule. Only it’s a post-apocalyptic world, run by an AI called Karma. A roller coaster of a read – hilarious, entertaining, thoughtful and literary, combining legends with speculations, a juxtaposition of the past with the future. Not a book to be missed. 5/5

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April 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in April 2020.

~Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – An epistolary and lipogrammatic satire, narrated in the form of letters between characters, by eliminating letters from the English alphabet as the story progresses. Pure brilliance in the concept and outcome. 5/5

~Meg by Steve Alten – A prehistoric marine dinosaur (that actually existed and was larger and stronger than the T-Rex) surfaces in the present age, wrecking havoc in its wake as top predator that ever existed. A thrilling ride of paleontology and marine ecology. 4/5

~Friend Request by Laura Marshall – A middle-aged woman receives a Facebook friend request from a school classmate. Only the latter died 27 years ago, and the protagonist was responsible for her death. An insightful tale on the obsession of social media and being consumed by the virtual world. 3.5/5

~Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata – A woman spends most of her adult life working in a convenience store, and feels like a misfit in the “regular world”. A simple story offering a fresh take on society and the pressure to conform. 3.5/5

~Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw – A post-apocalyptic novel about killer jam consuming the world. The tables have truly turned, and the eaten becomes the eater. A laugh riot all the way. 4/5

~The Yellow Arrow by Victor Pelevin – A train that has no start point and an undisclosed destination. Once you get on, you cannot get off, and you forget all about your time outside the train. The Yellow Arrow makes you a passenger for life. Philosophical and metaphorical, the train as an analogy for life itself. What is it about Russian writers that every book seems to warrant a 5/5?

2 books on Autism, since April is dedicated to Autism Awareness.

~The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris – An autistic child with synesthesia narrates the story of his neighbor’s murder. Only he’s the one who murdered her. And nobody believes him because he’s on the spectrum. Interestingly chronicled through colors. 4/5

~Autism in Heels by Jennifer O’Toole – A memoir of being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 34, and subsequently bringing up children on the autism spectrum. A witty, humorous and informative read. 5/5

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March 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in March – An array of women authors and female protagonists, in keeping with the month that celebrates Women’s Day. Due to lots going on around, I have not been able to get online much. Detailed reviews will follow as and when I find the time. Hope everyone is staying safe in these difficult days. It’s times like these when books are our refuge.

4 paperbacks:

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~Aranyaka by Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattaniak – A graphic novel about forests – the wilderness outside and within; the beginning of life and civilization, the merging of elements, and the influence of nature on man and vice versa. 5/5

~Road to Mekong by Piya Bahadur – A memoir about 4 women motorcyclists who undertake a road trip, covering 17,000 kilometers through 6 countries, guided by the river Mekong that flows through Southeast Asia. 5/5

~Sand & Sea by Ann D’Silva – A novel about past lives and connected souls. A women’s dreams are haunted by a man she knew in another life, and she attempts to find out more about him. 2/5

~In My Dreams I Dance by Anne Wafula Strike – The autobiography of a Paralympic racer who overcame disability and prejudice to compete among top level athletes. 5/5

3 books on Kindle:

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~The End We Start From by Megan Hunter – A post apocalyptic novel with development and destruction running parallel in the narrative. A baby is born as the world is being submerged by exponential floods. As the child grows, the world sinks further. 4/5

~Mad Love by Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan – A novelization of the origin story of Harley Quinn and her subsequent prominence in the DC comic world. 3/5

1 re-read:

~The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – One of the books I read this month was so disappointing, this book was conjured to bring back some brilliance in my reading. 4 individuals are placed in a supposedly haunted house to measure hauntings and obtain evidence of ghosts. But ghosts are not always around you. What about the ghosts within us? When it’s pure, brilliant writing one is looking for, look no further than Shirley Jackson. 5/5

Bibliophilic Endeavors – Book Club Meet

Another month, another meet. Our book club DYRT (Did You Read Today) just wound up our monthly get together this evening.

Our guest author kickstarted the session by introducing and reading from one of her books, as well as providing snippets about her writing and publishing journey. Savita Nair is an advertising copywriter by profession, whose genre as a published book writer is poetry. She describes her poetry as “straight-talking prose” that anyone who has dealt with the chaotic madness of modern day urban survival can understand and relate to. Her poetry can be described as a mix of romanticism, thoughtfulness, stoicism, pragmatism. Her poems are for those who enjoy poetry that doesn’t shroud itself in fancy analogies and jargon. Nair revealed she began writing poems at the age of seven, and cites Dorothy Parker as her primary inspiration. Her work reflects her state of mind – complex, candid and fearless. For the book meet today, Nair articulated six poems from her collection titled “Tell Me Your Real Story” – a fusion of angst and heartbreak, celebration and romance, disbelief and skepticism, sarcasm and fun. The poetry bandwagon takes you on a ride that is urban and chic, cynical and syrupy. A wonderful orator as well, Nair has herself read the audio versions of her books. She presented four autographed copies of Tell Me Your Story to randomly selected readers present at the meet.

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The author session was followed by the book review segment. We started with “Sambhaji” by Vishwas Patil, a book originally written in Marathi, but reviewed in English and Hindi by one of our members. A story of the unfortunate journey of the emperor Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj who spent most his life being compared to his father Shivaji Maharaj. The politics behind the throne, the defiance against various forces, the epic wars of Shambhuraje against the British, the Portuguese, Aurangzeb – all in all, a detailed narrative of Shambhaji’s history.

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The little bookworms followed this in-depth analysis of historical facts with some more world history. Some of the children of our members accompanied their parents to the meet, and reviewed their reads as well. Starting with Anne Frank’s “The Diary Of A Young Girl” by a ten year old who was fluent and fabulous as she described her analysis of Anne’s life through her diary entries. A thirteen year old carried forward the reviewing session with Ashwin Sanghi’s “The Krishna Key” – a historical and mythological thriller set around two timelines, five thousand years ago at the time of Lord Krishna (the Blue God), and a child in the present who grows up believing he is the final avatar of Krishna. An exhaustively researched plot which provides an alternate interpretation of the Vedic Age, and can be relished by conspiracy buffs and thriller addicts. Another articulate thirteen year old followed this with a delightful review of John Green’s “Paper Towns” . An attentive, intuitive and funny story about Margo Spiegelman whose adventures are the centre of attraction at her high school. She goes missing one day, and her friend Quentin Jacobsen sets about in unravelling the mystery, which in turn takes him on a splendid road trip across America as he follows the clues left for him. The storyline and plot are simple, but Green’s storytelling bumps the narrative up a notch keeping it funny and poignant, with relatable characters.

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The floor was then left open for the debate session which followed the book reviews. The topic for today was “Freedom To Choose Books” – should parents select books for children or should kids be allowed to choose what they want to read? Various perspectives were put forth, siding with both hemispheres of the argument. The age of the child, external influences from schools and peer groups, presence or absence of older/younger siblings, the child’s grasp over the language of reading, reasons for reading (pass the time or improve vocabulary) – many factors play a role in whether children should pick their own books or parents need to intervene in their literary choices. A well-rounded discussion where there was no right or wrong, with the emphasis on the context of reading in children.

The venue for this month’s meet being the YMCA, the merry bunch of bookworms wound up our monthly undertaking by donating books to the organization. The customary photo session and snacks brought an end to the evening’s agenda. Until we meet again next month. 🙂

2017-10-22

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DYRT – Book Club Meet

“A book is kind of like a river, I simply jump in and start swimming.”

~Melody Carlson

It was time to start swimming with fellow bibliophiles, as the weekend ushered in our book club’s monthly meet-up. For the uninitiated, our reading group was started by a bunch of us runners who loved to read and discuss books, and were looking for people who shared similar interests. What began as a group of runner-readers connecting over common passions, led to family and friends joining in, and ultimately had outsiders attending the book meets as well. Books connect us in myriad ways. Many of the book club members are runners and athletes, but all genres of books are discussed – not just running or sport related ones.

Our book club is referred to by the acronym DYRTDid You Run Today was the name of our running group, which we use interchangeably for Did You Read Today, and we also have a sister writing group for budding authors called Did You (w)Rite Today.

Coming back to our book meet, the session started off by introducing the guest author – a technology professional turned writer who has three books to his credit. Vijay Raghav’s literary career began as a poet in 2012 when he published his first book, ‘The Peak Of All Thoughts‘ – a bouquet of essays written in a mix of prose and poetry. Raghav then came out with his debut novel in 2013 titled ‘Fall‘ – an emotional roller coaster of love, envy, deceit and mystery. The book he selected for today’s reading session was his newly published compilation titled ‘The Curve Of Chance‘. Released in February 2018, the book comprises four intriguing short stories entwined with threads of chance and probability. Set around the city life, the tales are a mix of fact and fantasy, dealing with timely coincidences and untimely encounters. Through our author sessions, we try and introduce readers to niche books and writers who might not be popularly known around the world. It gives readers a chance to explore books they might not have come across otherwise. If you like exploring new authors, check out Raghav’s books.

After the author’s reading session, it was time for book reviews by our reader members of two selected books for today’s meet – Burmese Days by George Orwell, and Zero To One by Peter Thiel. We usually encourage a mix of fiction and non-fiction so that different genres can be explored, which cater to varying reader tastes. ‘Burmese Days‘ was the first novel by George Orwell, published in 1934 and based on his experiences as a policeman stationed in Imperial Burma in the 1920s. John Flory, the 35-year old hero of the novel, was characterized around Orwell himself, and the book presents a devastating picture of British colonial rule. It describes corruption and bigotry in a society where natives were considered an “inferior people”. Peter Thiel – one of the founders of PayPal – brings to us ‘Zero To One‘ which gives a new perspective on what basis one should start a company, and how businesses should be run. A recommended book for startups and entrepreneurs that sheds light on the fundamentals of starting a business, with Thiel emphasizing on research and innovation and providing anecdotes and statistics to share his insights with the reader.

A fourth book that was the highlight of the evening is titled ‘Fighter‘ – about ex-navy officer cum marathoner and golfer Cdr. Ravi Malhan who succumbed to cancer at the end of last year. His wife Rekha Malhan presented the book which she published in memory of her late husband. Cdr Malhan was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx and underwent total laryngectomy, which left him unable to speak in his last days and consequently resorting to share his thoughts through the written word. ‘Fighter‘ is a compilation of all his journal writings and musings, and proceedings from the sales of the book are being donated to cancer charities. The founder of our book club, who is also an ex-Navy officer and marathoner, read excerpts from the book.

We concluded with an autograph session with the guest author of his books that were available for sale at the venue. All in all, another well spent bookish evening for all the bibliophilic attendees who could make it for the meet.