Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on February 3, 2015, and is available to pre-order on Amazon.
There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them, whether it’s on the web or the word or in the world. They never get easier, never stop my heart from trip-trapping, never let me escape, this time, unscathed. But they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change. 
There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.
Many of those stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.
Writers being introspective about their writing is pure magic, which is why Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances is a must read, if only for its twenty page introduction. Gaiman writes about how this short story collection came into being, muses on how you need fiction to reveal hard truths to you and to see the world for what it is, and then he generously gives you some back-story on each story.
These are stories that are vivid and evocative and will make you think, for long hours after. The Thing About Cassandra is about a made-up girlfriend, a haunting story that could make you lonely and nostalgic and wonder if reality really is more than hazy wisps of memories. The Sleeper and the Spindle, which was first published as an illustrated fairy tale, is a rich retelling of Sleeping Beauty with a fabulously feminist twist. Down to A Sunless Sea is a short read, but one so filled with defeatist grief that it left me shuddering, and Gaiman’s trigger warning finally made sense. Here are things you don’t want to read about, that can and will horrify you, that are better left unread, that you therefore must read.
Often when I read short stories, I feel like it’s a lifetime badly crammed into a few pages. Every carefully chosen word goes against every haphazard detail of real life. Yet, the way short story plots easily twist and spin also seems unreal. Perhaps there is an art of reading a short story I should learn, a way to add credibility to this package of unreliable oddity bursting at its seams. Jerusalem is a story that could suffer from disconnectedness. It’s not traditional, and reads like something by A. S. Byatt. I think it survives because of its ending, which is refreshingly clear, practical. The story is about love and faith. It’s about unconditional acceptance too. It had something of a hold on me, specially, because the way it is written reassured me there’s more than garbled symbolism to “literary” fiction. 
The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury is a gem, incomparable in its desperate persistence. It’s about a man confronting a gradual loss of memory, of words, and ideas, and it’s an urgent plea to the world to remember the writer who showed us the power of books.

In The Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains, Gaiman has taken fairy tale tropes like heroes, quests and lost fathers and put a spin on them. This is a bleak Dickensian tale of cold vengeance. It’s an intriguing story. As is Kether to Malkuth, a delicately woven tale about an old duke and his search of meaning. These are what I know and love Gaiman for, the dire but charming fantasies.
Orange is a story written in the form of answers to a questionnaire. It’s a highly experimental structure and a dark absurd story. A girl answers a top-secret-government-business-sounding questionnaire, detailing an incident where her sister apparently turned into a giant orange blob of light. You don’t know the questions, which would make this an interesting book club read. It would be endlessly fascinating to see every reader fill in the blanks constructing her own unique versions of the events.
Other favourites of the collection: Feminine Endings – a chilling love letter written by a man who poses as a statue, Adventure Story – a quirky whimsical tale that will appeal to everyone with a mother, Click-Clack the Rattlebag – a disconcertingly simple horror tale, and And Weep, Like Alexander, a moral story like no other. It’s a treat to revisit the Doctor and Amy in Nothing O’Clock, and the occasional poem comes as a welcome change. 
But for all the great stories, Trigger Warning is a mixed bag. Sometimes Gaiman’s writing seems so pointless, you have to remind yourself it’s probably not and sieve the text for deeper implications. Not every story in this collection makes me call him, with full conviction, a good writer. Some stories have lost their way, some require too much effort from the reader and others are grand attempts that have ended up, for lack of a better word, flimsy. 
The charm of this collection, which you may call haphazard in style and genre, lies in its variety: it is deliciously eclectic. And that’s the thing about Neil Gaiman: you just cannot nail down his style. He’s the king of unpredictable. There are stories in this collection, fables steeped in mythology, which seem very typically Gaiman until, one unique tale pops up that leaves you stunned and somehow devastated, because you had only just begun to believe that you knew him. 
So, I would recommend this book to those who have read Gaiman, have already once been caught unaware by his genius and are eager for more. Trigger Warning is a must read for fans. It’s probably not the best place to start for curious first-time explorers of his works.

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogging for Books.
Summary: Madeleine Altimari’s mother is dead, and the world is a tough place for the brash nine-year-old kid, who is an aspiring jazz singer. Bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who’s just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, Ben Allen, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat’s Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever.
My thoughts: Philadelphia, if I’d known the setting of the novel, lived there and recognized the street names, and the mood, this book would have been something else. It’s is a very atmospheric read, and Bertino knows just how to tickle your senses with her words. The book begins with a snowfall:
Snow flurries fall in the city. Actors walking home from a cast party on Broad Street try to catch them on their tongues. The ingenue lands a flake on her hot cheek and erupts into a fit of laughter. In Fishtown a nightmare trembles through the nose and paws of a dog snoozing under construction flats. The Rittenhouse Square fountain switches to life with a pronouncement of water while Curtis Hall musicians, late for final rehearsal, arpeggiate through the park. 
The flurries somersault, reconsider, double back. The alleys of 9th Street bear witness as they softly change their minds.

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino is just what the title promises, a novel made up of cozy warmth and chirpy, quirky characters. It’s a light read, the kind of book you’d finish in a day and savour through the next, a perfect travel companion. Even its corniness has a charm.
The last time Gus sees Alessandra is through the elbows and arms of her brothers and sisters who force themselves in between them. 
That’s a drummer’s love story. If you want a prettier one, you’ll be waiting forever. If you could separate your body into four distinct rhythms, you’ll be cracked too.

But under all its wry quirkiness, the book has a poignant message. Each character is a real person, with their faults and failings. Madeleine is a jerk, a smarth-mouthed, prank-pulling, arrogant jerk, who’d have had her own gang in school had she not hated to be around other kids so much. Sarina Greene is awkward, obsessive and paranoid, plagued with little concerns and self-doubts. Jack Lorca is about to lose his jazz club, his girlfriend and has not only lost but never managed to make any connection with his son. Three lives, and more, converge at 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas and you realize that the story is about bad things happening to bad people, and bad people trying to be good. It’s about people who’ve made mistakes, people who haven’t been their best trying to improve, to make good on promises. Because, even jerks have mothers who die. 
Cat’s pajamas – that’s what brings these odd protagonists together, literally and otherwise. Google helped me out right when I got the book, cat’s pajamas refers to a great new thing or more specifically here – and please correct me if I’m wrong – a person who is the best at what he does. Madeleine is an amazing singer, the nine year old Blossom Dearie fan is self-taught and inspired by her dancer mother and practices with a diligence that we’re unlikely to associate with spoilt brat who sneaks her mother’s smokes. Sarina Greene for all her idiotic clumsiness really cares about her students, is passionate and has suffered enough losses in her life to be wary of appreciation. Jack Lorca has practically given up on his club, his girlfriend and his son, and it makes him miserable. It’s the last night of his career, The Cat’s Pajamas will be shut down if it stays open after 2. A.M. Nostalgia, melancholy and love – the author knows how to express each.

His father is already dead by the time Lorca reaches him, beer unspooling around him, eyes fixed on some fascination under the bar. Lorca gathers him in his arms.
Gathers him in his name – Jack Francis Lorca.
We carry our ancestors in our names and sometimes we carry our ancestors through the sliding doors of emergency rooms and either way they are heavy, either way we can’t escape.

Not wholly ironically, I did find faults in the book. The meandering story, the present tense narration and the flitting points of view are not for everybody. The book could have done without a few characters and the stories within stories, though endearing, give it the aura of a short story collection. The cover title “2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, a novel” suddenly seems to be trying to prove a point. 
I love magic realism when it works, but this abruptly fantastical ending just isn’t one of those times. Its incongruity only makes me a tougher judge of the rest of the book. The end is not the place to experimental with a new style. The last impression, if unfairly, matters most. And mine is more of an “Eh!” than I wanted.

You can pre-order this book here

Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night by Shelly Lowenkopf

About the book: Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night brings a number of Shelly Lowenkopf’s previously published short stories together in a single volume. All the stories revolve around life in Santa Barbara, the oceanside city north of Los Angeles, where people go after they’ve burned out in San Francisco and L.A. Yet there’s no safe haven anywhere. Interwoven into Santa Barbara’s picturesque setting, the people in these twelve stories reveal what their hearts and souls encounter in relationships. Their misreadings, mistakes, and misadventures bare what happens to people who love another

My thoughts: Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night will make you appreciate short stories. I’ve only been reading collections and anthologies for a few years now, but this will definitely make it to my top favourites. Only the other day I read this blog post about Hemingway’s iceberg theory, and it sort of applies to Shelly Lowenkopf’s writing: there’s a lot more meaning to glean from the stories than it would appear. Not all stories had the same deep impact on me, and I have to confess, some left me a bit confused – but overall, this makes good collection, the kind that you’d want to savour over time rather than devouring in a day. My favourite stories:

I’ve Got Those King City Blues – Placing must be important in a collection. This story makes a good first taste, enough to make you want to continue, but not so good as to set your expectations too high! It’s not as much a story as a glimpse into the life of Charlene, a forty one year old, just out of a bad relationship and looking for a chance at a better one. The writing is atmospheric and tense, and the ending leaves you wanting more.

Charlene sat up, withdrew her hand from his, circled her knees with her arms. “Doesn’t anything last, Brian Sullivan?” Even in the growing dimness, she saw the same expression on him as when she’d caught him peering into his coffee cup.
“It hasn’t so far,” he said.

The Ability – Rachel is hired as a ghost writer of condolence letters. This story is brilliant, both in its concept and execution. It is made up of tiny intriguing details of character, things that could only be caught by an experienced and observant eye. It makes you laugh, tear up and wonder how strange life often gets.

Absent Friends – This is easily my favourite story of the bunch and certainly worth buying the whole collection for. Who knew a short story could have so much to say? I’ve already read this thrice and still don’t have words to explain it. Saying it’s about the relationships in the life of Sam Zachary, who is worried he has lost his cat, is not enough. It’s a sad story that makes you put your joys and troubles in perspective, and wish you didn’t have to.

“Not everyone gets to live the span projected  for them. I know it sucks, particularly if life seems to be going so well. Sometimes there are unanticipated events. Sometimes-” she seemed to consider for a moment, “-sometimes you have to make choices.”

Death Watches – This story captures the effect of the death of an acquaintance on a lonely man; and the comical inner struggle that follows, between filling an apparent void in his life and the habitual inability to make amends.

The sadness this time had begun with the news of Richard Martin’s death. Then, the sadness had begun to spread, like a spilled glass of wine on someone’s table cloth, taking up friendships, loves, old relationships, future possibilities, and, of course Langer’s own sense of his own longevity.

Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night – The title story is another well placed story, right in the middle. It follows the winding relationship between Carter and Cissy in a matter of days. It’s the kind of story that you can read over and over, and end up with a completely different impression every time. It’s also a story with a powerful makes-you-smile ending.
“The freaking universe has a mind of its own. Unfolds the way it wants.”

Messages – This story is about the relationship dynamic between two people seemingly in love, the giving and getting back, the missed signals, the expectations. You see Roger Beck, who takes his relationship a step further by moving in with Dana and her kid Frances, who is pretty okay except when she hears voices. It’s a weird story, packed with restless confusion – there is no real beginning and ending, but that works astonishingly well.
I also liked the stories Mr. Right and Coming to Terms, Witness Relocation Program and Molly, which is this strange, funny piece about a man who plans to steal his friend’s dog. All stories are about weaknesses, misunderstandings and mistakes but even the gray characters have these inevitable, redemptive qualities. The stories are set in the same world, with a few characters and places crossing over, like the Xanadu Coffee Shop and it’s a world that, despite all its issues, you want to be a part of.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves a good short story, and definitely suggest it to every budding writer. At close to two hundred pages, Love Can Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night by Shelly Lowenkopf is a treat.
Check out the Virtual Author Book Tours page for more reviews, giveaways and interviews. 

Love Kills by Ismita Tandon

Summary: (from AmazonYou won’t live a boring life if you’re named after a whisky (more or less). Meet Johnny Will, named thus by an alcoholic father who died under mysterious circumstances. Johnny is the founder of Thy Will – a de-addiction centre for the rich and the famous that uses very questionable methods – and the fiancé of Mira Kermani, daughter of the richest man in town.
The beautiful, young Mira dies of an overdose of morphine. Officer Ray is convinced that Johnny is the killer. Johnny’s assistant Sera, who secretly loves him, and his half-brother Zac are working hard to protect him from the officer. Or are they? Could Aunt Adele’s hunger for what was rightfully her son’s inheritance have driven her to murder? Or is the murderer an unhappy patient?  From the author of the disturbing and controversial Jacob Hills, an unputdownable story of crime and passion in the hill-station town of Monele.
My thoughts: I read this book in one sitting, and how could I have not, when it is so engaging? The author has not fallen into the usual whodunit trap, where the convoluted characters and contrived storylines strive to keep us utterly confused, but in the process fail to sound real. Love Kills has a realistic plot, and because it is so believable, and the characters so gray, the story affects us like few others. From Johnny Wills and his malicious aunt Adele to the totally smitten Sera and Officer Ray who is irrationally convinced of Johnny’s guilt – each person has his own faults – we find ourselves siding with no one and realize soon enough how everyone, no matter how well we know them, has secrets that are better off hidden. While it’s difficult to guess who the killer is, and the author expertly keeps us on our toes, scanning for clues; it’s even more difficult to figure out who the good guy is or if there is one.
Johnny’s de-addiction center is reminiscent of the harrowing Stephen King short story, Quitters, Inc. Love Kills by Ismita Tandon drives home the idea that sometimes we don’t know what’s best for ourselves, sometimes we need to be slapped across the face to be brought to our senses. Inversely, though, however convinced we may be that we’re helping someone, it’s often best to stay put, and let people run their own lives. Guilt, resentment, obsession, misplaced concern; the story makes us question the simple feelings that could easily multiply into unrepentant cruelty. Admittedly, parts of the story are a little over-dramatized but that’s to be expected, from a scandalous theme.
The authors uses her setting well, and the hill-station town of Monele is inextricably woven into the characters’ life stories. Even in a couple of hundred pages, the book manages to have a large scope. In a sense, the novel is generation-spanning, and shows us how deeply family and the social-cage influence a child, and how our passions and failings affect not only those around us, but go on to seal the fate of the generations yet to come. 
The book reads like one written by a seasoned writer. Those who’ve read Ismita Tandon’s previous books are surely familiar with her atypical style and Love Kills is that style at its best. The writing is pithy, and funny and strewn throughout the book are the most wonderful poems. Which brings me to the author’s amazingly frequent, tongue-in-cheek references to herself, in the garb of Officer Ray’s poetic persona a.k.a ‘A Lesser Known Poet.’ 
The myriad points of view, each chapter a first person narration by one of the characters, do initially seem jarring. As do the tenses: the story is narrated in the present tense, but there are moments when the flitting timelines prove somewhat hard to follow. But what the many viewpoints provide, is a chance to see each individual closely. Besides, the viewpoints bring us the chapter-title illustrations, and you know what, why settle for a description when we could have an actual picture? —>
Here are some of my favourite quotes from the story:
The whole world wants to raise a family, no matter where their own life is headed. Buy a fancy cradle, tiny clothes, expensive toys, paint the nursery and potty train, it’s all fine, but what are they going to teach the kid when their own head is so full of fears and lies? How easy it is to make a baby and then screw up with its head! Passing on the confusion and chaos to the child, till the new seed is infected by the old.
“It can’t be! She would have told me. We were very close,” he said with the crumbling confidence of a man who had reared a child with love and affection only to lose her to an unforeseen enemy, adulthood.
That is how the world lives, in charades of loving families, no one acknowledging that all is not well and never will be. A beautiful patchwork of lies is what we create to fit in.
‘Why wash our dirty linen in public?’ She spoke with utmost dignity, the ravages of time and  alcohol had not dimmed her sense of society and social stigma.
I wondered then whether she too was to blame – this silently suffering wife who has witnessed it all, fearing for her husband’s reputation.
Let these snippets convince you not to dismiss Love Kills by Ismita Tandon as just another mystery. Grab your copy on Amazon!

The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery by Nancy Allen

Because of unexpected distractions, and despite the more-than-usual posts I wrote last month, I have a few reviews pending. This is one of those; I couldn’t really write a review without properly mulling over the book, because The Code of the Hills by Nancy Allen is a layered book.

Summary: (from Goodreads) In the Missouri Ozarks, some things aren’t talked about… even abuse. But prosecutor Elsie Arnold is determined to change that.
When she is assigned to prosecute a high-profile incest case
in which a father is accused of abusing his three young daughters, Elsie is
ready to become the Ozarks’ avenging angel.
But as Elsie sinks her teeth into the case, everything
begins to turn sour. The star witness goes missing; the girls refuse to talk
about their father, who terrorizes the courtroom from the moment he enters; and
Elsie begins to suspect that their tough-as-nails mother has ulterior motives.
To make matters worse, Elsie receives gruesome threats from local extremists,
warning her to mind her own business.
While Elsie swears not to let a sex offender walk, she
realizes the odds – and maybe the town – are against her, and her life begins to
crumble. But amidst all of the conflict, the safety of three young girls hangs
in the balance…
My thoughts: I suppose I should stop saying I don’t like mysteries, because Witness Impulse just keeps on bringing us some truly amazing ones. That being said, The Code of the Hills, as you can guess from the summary, isn’t your usual fast paced thrilling murder mystery. It’s a very procedure-focused book, the bad guy is already in jail, is being tried for abusing his daughters. And Elsie, a lawyer, is digging into the family history, trying to piece together a case against the man. 
But things are never as black and white as you’d like them to be. And Nancy Allen tells the story with uncompromising honesty. As Elsie uncovers the secrets of the Taney family, she begins to see a pattern of abuse and lies. Donita Taney, the girls’ mother is disturbingly conniving, and though she’s been a victim of abuse all her life, you find yourself hating her (and then chiding yourself for that.) From the girls, brazen fifteen year old Charlene stands out, reminiscent of Krystal Weedon. So does the littlest of the girls, whom you see internalizing her fears, too young to place the blame on anyone. 
And then you have Elsie Arnolds, the woman who decided to be a lawyer because of a traumatic experience of an old acquaintance. Elsie’s perspective guides you through the story, but she’s not the most reliable of narrators. She finds faults in everyone she meets, she makes excuses for herself that she wouldn’t for anyone else (say, her boss, for instance), she has low self esteem which peeks through most in her conversations with her mother, she lets her boyfriend treat her like crap, only to turn around and be completely disgusted by what the Taney women get themselves into. It’s quite irking, how little empathy Elsie has for the victims, how she wants to play Prospero and fix them, when she can’t even sort herself out. Often it seems like the victims are not as important to her as proving herself right. She’s hard to like, a gray protagonist, but she means well. And in the end, she redeems herself most convincingly.
The book is thoroughly engaging and has a lot to teach. The difficult topic is carefully dealt with. You wouldn’t suspect the ending, because it’s not about finding one solution, but putting it all together. The book is well written. But it’s not easy to digest. The Code of the Hills by Nancy Allen is no breeze to read. If the summary interests you, if you can deal with bitter truths and don’t mind an emotional roller-coaster ride, read this book. 

Butterfly Season by Natasha Ahmed

is going to be long, because this book has really made me think; which is
saying something, because it was barely a hundred pages long. I’ll sum up my
review, for those of you who don’t wish to scroll all the way down for the
conclusion: it’s a good book, if you’re South Asian, you will find it
inspiring, strong and relatable. If not, it will provide a frank and
non-exoticized look at a culture that is subjected to all kinds of stereotyping. Not
to mention, it’s quirky, cute and you’ll have fun reading it. Not convinced yet? Well, you might
have to read the whole review, after all.
(from Goodreads:) On her first holiday in six years, Rumi is expecting to relax
and unwind. But when she is set up by her long-time friend, she doesn’t shy
away from the possibilities. Ahad, a charming, independent, self-made man,
captures her imagination, drawing her away from her disapproving sister,
Juveria. Faced with sizzling chemistry and a meeting of the minds, Ahad and
Rumi find themselves deep in a relationship that moves forward with growing
intensity. But as her desire for the self-assured Ahad grows, Rumi struggles
with a decision that will impact the rest of her life.
by her scandalized sister, a forbidding uncle and a society that frowns on
pre-marital intimacy, Rumi has to decide whether to shed her middle-class
sensibilities, turning her back on her family, or return to her secluded
existence as an unmarried woman in Pakistan. We follow Rumi from rainy London
to a sweltering Karachi, as she tries to take control of her own destiny.
All right, grievances first: I’d call this an illustration of the
don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover motto, I have to say, for a book with some
truly mesmerizing moments, the cover could have been better. I thought the book
was too short, I would have liked more development of the characters, I’d
have given them a little more time to fall for each other, and even more
time to stay ‘fallen’ until the conflicts arose. Here’s hoping Ahmed’s next
book is longer. At the risk of sounding nit-picky, the book could have
been edited better: spelling mistakes, a few awkward constructions, words like wry, languorous, elegant repeated far too often for my taste.
to the goods, and there were so many. It’s common knowledge that I don’t like
the kind of formulaic romance that is churned out with astonishing regularity today. Anyway, I have read at least a few love stories and the one
thing that’s consistently bothered me about a typical read of the genre is that
there’s little else but sizzling romance. That is not the case with Natasha
Ahmed’s Butterfly Season. The story is honest, and while you can predict the way
it’ll turn, you’re still invested in the journey.
conflict of the book is well tackled. Sex before marriage being a taboo,
letting your family decide whom you end up with, having kids being your sole
focus, not getting a choice in the most basic decisions of your life –
these are not uncommon even today here in India and I have no doubt the prejudice
exists in the rest of South Asia, Pakistan, the Middle East. But the book does
something I didn’t expect from the author’s initial e-mail, it never sounds
preachy, nor like a rebellious angst filled complaint. Hell, you find Rumi
passionately defending Karachi till the very end, if that doesn’t sound fair, I
don’t know what will.
author gives a scenario, an example: a typical desi Pakistani girl from a
fairly conservative family falls for a considerably open minded and experienced
Pakistani man settled in London. After dating for a while, she has to decide
whether she would sleep with him, and she surprises herself with her choice.
When the time comes to define the relationship, she finds herself parroting
everything that’s been hammered into her growing up, lessons of right and wrong. These are philosophies which sound reasonable enough until actually put to
test. Is she orthodox and irrational, or does he really not have good ‘values’
only because he wants to take their relationship a step further than she’s used
to? You’d be surprised by how many people I know would side with Rumi’s family,
and there’d be a considerable lot that’d say, “It is wrong that it’s a taboo,
but why do something you know society is not going to like!?” The people who
care about you would never adjust for you. That is just out of the question.
surprisingly, the book delves even deeper into the issue. Rumi doesn’t want to
sever ties with her family; she loves her kid sister, even though Juveria’s is being unfair. She tries to make it work until circumstances turn to the very
worst and making a choice becomes inevitable, no matter the consequences. And
while the premise of this may sound ridiculous to the westerners or the more liberal people here, a “So what? Big deal!” kind of issue, the story
isn’t only about these taboos. It’s about finding yourself, learning to love yourself
and accepting people for what they are. It’s about not meddling in others’ lives or considering it your right, about being less skeptical of change and finding
the strength to be different, and if need be, facing the challenges it might
bring up. Geography only changes the type of problem, not the crux.

book has character. It’s about two people who get along really well and fall in
love. And we read about more than just her fluttering heart and his firm hands
or something. Ahmed plays out Ahad and Rumi’s conversations for you, from their
families and jobs to their tastes in music, books. They feel like real people
instead of stock characters. And they feel modern, not in the sense of
unorthodox (that would kind of beat the purpose of the book) but in that there
is little melodrama. A fight feels like a fight, not a whole production.

the thing I love the most about this book is the atmosphere. The writing feels
alive with a love for the characters’ roots. I have a thing for Urdu, having always been fascinated by my father’s self taught fluency in it. I like the little mentions of culture in the book, the bits of
Urdu and even the very English English – like when Ahad says his Cockney accent
and the inevitable dropping of h’s and t’s made his mother teach him Urdu. I
like all the pop culture references – be it the Junoon-Vital Signs debate or
the bad Corleone impression. And I love the song that Ahmed has, for the most part, based the title on. As far as I understand, it is about dealing with separation from your mother and I suppose, your motherland. The butterfly motifs and the fluttering butterflies in Rumi’s stomach as she fell in love fit wonderfully together as the title of the book. I found a set of lyrics translated
here, but the author has provided a compact glossary at the end of the book, anyway. I can’t say I’d heard the song before, but it’s beautiful. You should listen to it too, just to
get in the mood, before you go buy the book!
Butterfly Season by Natasha Ahmed has been published by Indireads, as part of a wide range of romance novellas for South Asian readers everywhere. Natasha Ahmed is a pen name. In real life, Natasha is a graphic designer, a businesswoman and occasionally writes art and book reviews for publications within Pakistan. Butterfly Season is her debut book and for a first effort, it is lovely. You can visit the author’s website for more about the book.

Blood On The Tongue by Stephen Booth

After I read and reviewed Black Dog, the first in the Ben Cooper & Diane Fry crime series, I just couldn’t resist buying Dancing with the Virgins, the sequel. Then, I found two more at the library (and not caring much for reading in order, I read them.) Blood on the Tongue by Stephen Booth is the third book. Now, having already read two books out of order, I can say with certainty that the books provide enough background information to work as standalones. Then again, I can’t think of a reason for not wanting to read the whole series! 

Summary: The weather is cold and the clues no warmer as Peak District
detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry tackle a medley of mysteries – each one
knottier than the last – in English author Stephen Booth’s haunting third novel,
Blood on the Tongue. The unidentified body of a dead man has turned up on a
frosty roadside. An abused woman is found curled in the snow on nearby
Irontongue Hill, an apparent suicide. And there’s the lingering puzzle of a
Royal Air Force bomber that crashed into Irontongue back in 1945, killing
everyone on board except for the pilot, who reportedly walked away from the
wreckage… and was never heard from again. With leave and sickness decimating
the ranks of the Edendale police force, all hands are needed to solve the
modern deaths. But constable Cooper finds himself distracted by the World War
II tragedy, in large part because of a beguiling young Canadian, the
granddaughter of that missing pilot, who’s come to Edendale determined to clear
her ancestor’s name.

My thoughts: The characters, the wonderfully fleshed out characters, were the highlights of the book for me. I could once again instantly picture the nice, perceptive (albeit slightly awkward and generally confused, around Diane Fry, anyway) Cooper and the (still) sort of cold outsider Fry. But they are the main characters of the book, you’d expect them to stand out. But – I loved the many officers in the police department, the Polish community of Edendale, the survivors of the war and the avid collectors of war memorabilia and those others who found their way into the story and got stuck there without ever meaning to nor really deserving to; every single character felt so real and alive. The intermingling lives made all the concepts of flat characters and round characters and foils just vanish right out of my head – they were real people for the time it took me to finish the book and then some. Cooper is the kind of guy anyone would like and Fry the kind of woman you’re bound not to, but together they just make the perfect, if a little odd, team. Diane was a little less annoying in this book than usual, or maybe I am just warming up to her. Either way, I particularly liked the typical Cooper and Fry moments in Blood On The Tongue. A lot depends on protagonists in any book, and this series revolves around the perfect pair!

Another specialty of this book was all the work that went into creating the right atmosphere. For every scene. What I loved was it was not just about detailed descriptions: the ice and the chill were amazingly described. But then there was that part about Cooper’s squelching wet shoe that brought the feeling to life. The setting is obviously partly fictional and partly real and to someone who has never been there (to the real places) the attraction was that it was hard to figure out just what was made up. And it was all so vivid that I actually wished it weren’t not-real!  Then there were those little well placed snippets of insight (which I just had to highlight – so by the end there were yellow boxes glaring at me from every three pages).

It was one of the worst sounds you could ever hear – the ticking of a clock in an empty house after its owner had died. It was a reminder that the world would carry on just the same after you had gone, that the second hand wouldn’t even hesitate in its movement as you passed from living to dying. Tick, you were there. Tick, you were gone. As if you had never mattered. It was a sound that struck straight to some primal fear in the guts – the knowledge that time was steadily counting you down to your own death.

If I had to point out a problem I had with the book, and I don’t want to, it could be that the book was a little slow, a little confusing at the beginning, and it took me a little while to get completely drawn in. But once I was engrossed, making time to read it had priority over all my daily plans. Fact is, this is definitely one of those reads that I’d recommend to anyone who’d care to listen, and that means, you should read it too. Get it right here!

Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell

Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell has to be the most engrossing, thrilling, fast paced book I have read this year. It is action packed and so, so interesting. The book is the second part in a series titled The Order of the Sanguines, but offers enough background info, detailing on the events of Book #1 (The Blood Gospel), to work as a standalone. It is like a paranormal version of a Dan Brown novel, with vampires, angels and prophecies. 

Summary: A modern scientist, a highly secret eternal spiritual order, and a terrifying power must join forces to bring down a ruthless and cunning enemy and prevent the Apocalypse. 

While exploring a tomb hidden for centuries in the depths of Masada, Israel, brilliant archaeologist Erin Granger began an incredible journey to recover a miraculous ancient artifact tied to Christ himself. The quest introduced her to a diabolical enemy determined to discover the book and use its powers for his own dark ends. It also led her to an ancient and highly secret Vatican order-known simply as the Saguines. Though she survived, the danger has only just begun…

An attack outside Stanford University thrusts Erin back into the fold of the Sanguines. As the threat of Armageddon looms, she must unite with an ancient evil to halt the plans of a man determined to see the world end, a man known only as Iscariot.

My thoughts: People judge vampire fiction far too quickly these days. This book is neither young adult, nor paranormal romance nor anything that would make you roll your eyes and go all skeptic. In a word, Innocent Blood by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell is awesome, so don’t dismiss it as just-another-vampire-related-book.
What I liked: The standouts were: the uniquely sinister take on vampires; the characters picked out of history and mythology, I specially liked the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory; the character development despite the swift pace; the adventure spanning over the world and the ages; the attention to detail. The story was horrific, thrilling, tragic and (here’s a rarity in this genre) quite insightful. And the touch of science fiction, with those ingenious mechanical insects capable of fatally poisoning vampires: wow. The book has left me in complete awe. That it is part of a series and there’s more to come is the icing on the cake.
What I didn’t like: Nothing. The book was as close to perfect as can be! I give it a four star rating, because, not having read the first book, it took me a while to get into context. Some terms were unfamiliar; like the strigoi – the vampires, the Sanguines – the reformed (sort of) vampires priests or the blasphemare – these animals turned into nightmarishly strong monsters after being infected by the blood of the strigoi. I also had to read up on a lot of the Christian elements and the Biblical references, though they were pretty basic and the extra reading was just for me. I don’t know if the themes could be construed as offensive by religious readers, but they were very intriguing and as far as I’m concerned, amazingly unique…  What I’m trying to say is, READ IT.

Love and Lokpal by Pooja Wanpal

After a very unwanted two-week break from blogging, this week will be flooded with reviews. Some time last week, this book finally arrived on my doorstep (there were some issues, I live in an annoyingly inconspicuous neighbourhood, that no one ever finds.) I finished Love and Lokpal in one swift sitting, and if not anything else, it certainly made for a well spent afternoon! Love and Lokpal by Pooja Wanpal has a pretty self-explanatory title. That’s just what the book is about: it is a college romance with the whole frenzied Lokpal Bill movement as its backdrop.

Summary: Shlok Kulkarni, an architect by day and an Assassin’s creed
junkie by night is being bombarded with eligible girls by his matchmaking mama.
In a bid to escape her and maybe check out a few hot girls while he’s at it,
Shlok flees to Delhi, where a massive protest for the Lokpal Bill has been
building up. Kaveri Gokhale has been searching for a cause her whole
life. When the winds of the Lokpal blow through the country, she eagerly catches
the next train to Delhi to witness history. When Shlok runs into Kaveri at Jantar Mantar, the sparks are
undeniable. As their relationship blossoms, Kaveri discovers a dark secret that
leaves her devastated… and endangers the fate of billion others. Will
Shlok and Kaveri’s love wither or will it withstand the uncertainties of the
corrupt politics? Can love truly conquer all ideologies?

My thoughts: I have mixed views about this one. The one question I ask myself when I am on the fence about a book is if it has a point. When it comes to Love and Lokpal; for all the minor irritants, the book is hardly pointless.

What I liked: You know how some books have like a wide, epic-sy scope? This book has the exact opposite, and that is a good thing. Having our heroine fight for an apparently huge, inspiring cause while still bristling over boyfriend troubles has an incredibly homey feel to it. The story sticks, mostly, to the every day reality of a young Indian. The characters are lovable stereotypes and the situations they’re put in are quite easy to imagine and relate to, from the college politics and twenty-something colleagues with their crazy boss, to a typical mother trying to trick her son into an arranged marriage. The relationship between Shlok and his sister has a cozy, personal quality that suggests some (welcomed) borrowing from reality, as do the college friendships. 

If the writing weren’t as funny, I have to say, the book would have been dull. The language is at once mature and quirky, the descriptions are vivid and detailed. The protest in Delhi is described with much fervour and it has that ounce of dramatic passion that characterizes Kaveri. You can tell the author has done her research, without there being any unwanted information dumps. The love story itself is sweet and never overly mushy. And the point of the book? The answer to the question posed on the back cover, “Can love truly conquer all ideologies?” That’s something I’d rather not spoil; except perhaps to say that the story concludes on a nicely re-conciliatory note rather than pushing any sort of agenda. 

What I didn’t like: The biggest problem I have with the book is that it just doesn’t manage to fully explore any of the issues it so promisingly brings forth. It is just too short a story, wrapped up much too quickly, before it even has a chance to really begin! As a consequence, the relationships between many of those admittedly nice characters haven’t been allowed to flesh out either. Carrying the story a little further, and stretching out the beginning would have made the plot a lot smoother, the ending a lot less abrupt. There are few editorial errors, but the tenses frequently go kind of wonky and the switching narratives seem a bit repetitive and unnecessary – I think the book could have worked just as well with a single third person perspective.

Overall, if you were a part of or religiously followed the whole Lokpal protest movement business (which is more than I can say for myself), you would find heaps to relate to. If you like cutesy college romances, this one is perfect. For me, the fact that Love and Lokpal by Pooja Wanpal reads like a debut is a teeny bit of a problem. She should write another book, and I have a feeling I’d like the next one more.

The Great Mogul by Rajeev Jacob

When I got the review request, I was so fascinated by the description that I scurried off to Goodreads to go through the reviews. Except, to my irritation, I never found a Goodreads page. Having read the book now in one very exciting sitting, I am even more annoyed, because The Great Mogul by Rajeev Jacob is a unique read. I really wouldn’t want it to disappear among the hundreds of mostly mediocre books that the Indian publishing industry churns out every year. The Great Mogul is, in its own delightful and rather eccentric way, awesome. I admit, the book is hardly perfect, but it is well crafted and engaging.

Summary: The Great Mogul is a 900 carat diamond which was last
seen by jeweller Travenier in the hands of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in the
seventeenth century. There have been no sightings of it since then leading
historians to conclude that it has been either cut up, misplaced or lost
forever. The lives of the beautiful but much abused Khyrunissa, the thieving
but loyal Bhaichand and the murderous but love-lorn English mercenary David
Washerby are inextricably linked in this searing tale of love, greed, ambition
and betrayal.
Two young scholars delving into the role of mercenaries in eighteenth century Indian wars discover more than just pages out of history. Through the world of musty old archival records and clues hidden in a minor British poetess’ love lines, Irene and Jason find themselves chasing the elusive trail of The Great Mogul – one of the world’s largest and India’s greatest diamonds, the brilliance of which is matched only by the depths of mystery surrounding its current whereabouts. Along the way, they find out more about a dissolute English mercenary’s perilous and exciting quest to seek a great fortune. A journey that takes him across the length and breadth of  India and nearly leaves him dead.
My thoughts: The Great Mogul by Rajeev Jacob is a diamond in the rough (see what I did there?) There are goods and bads, but the goods definitely outnumber the bads. That being said, I do hope that the person in charge of the editing does a better job the next time.

What I liked: The blunt writing style is the first thing that caught my attention. The descriptions are vividly crude, though I actually enjoy the uncompromising honesty. The hunt for a diamond could have been grossly sensationalized, but this book is firmly realistic, with maybe just a dash of the necessary drama. I like the intermingling of the two periods; we learn what happened in David’s times and at the same time watch as Irene and Jason, the two young scholars, dig into history. While the past is undoubtedly thrilling, the present too is harrowing, in a different manner, of course. Research is not easy, and it would have seemed very unlikely for Irene and Jason to have found what they were looking for just by visiting a couple of libraries.
The characters are well drawn and the interactions are interesting. The author has managed what few can; every character has a distinctive voice; the otherwise third person narrative is interspersed by bits and pieces of story from almost each character’s point of view. The reader begins to care for them.
The language varies too, in that you can tell from the words if it is the woman talking or the slave or the foreigner. And most of all, what I love (love!) is Emily Bottleshaw’s poetry, and I’m not the biggest fan of poetry, so that is saying something.
Let me go back to the descriptions, the India of the old is so quaint. While present day imagery is funny and altogether relatable, as Irene and Jason travel around the dreaded streets of Delhi in a rickety rickshaw, the train travel and the roaming around in the rain on rented bikes with people staring; the past has an overpowering charm. It is also aptly gory back then, with the brutal killings and rapes. And strewn over the book are descriptions that really stand out; like, a dried up river resembling a shriveled snake skin: doesn’t that just make you smile and nod in agreement?

What I didn’t like: Here come the bads, which are, to be honest, just one big bad. Most of us tend to overlook our own mistakes, we just don’t notice them; I bet I’ve scattered a few along this review too. But isn’t that why we have editors? For starters, almost none of the quoted questions end in question marks. Then there’s this: I’m pretty sure the word “riff-raff” appears about half a dozen times; once, it makes a good description; but repeatedly using the same words is just distasteful. A single paragraph contains the word “trusted” in every line, and another the word “kind”; not cool. In some places, there are extra words that are entirely out of place, probably forgotten there after modifying the sentence, and some sentences start out okay, jumble up along the way and end up missing a key preposition or a pronoun. Which reminds me, for some reason the author often uses ‘it’ instead of ‘they’, I could quote a few amusing examples I jotted down but I don’t want to seem too fussy. Finally, the chapter titles are wholly superfluous. The difference between a badly written book and a badly edited book is obvious to the observant reader. The Great Mogul is certainly the latter, which makes the mistakes all the more frustrating.
Another thing I noticed is that the story progresses in short scenes and when the writer is seemingly at a loss for how to proceed, the scene abruptly and conveniently ends and a new chapter begins. It’s a style of writing I don’t mind in this instance, but unless intentional, the plotting needs work.

Conclusion? One thing is for sure, this is a book I’ll re-re-read. And I will watch out for more of the author’s works, hoping and praying that they are well edited! Meanwhile, you can grab your copy of The Great Mogul by Rajeev Jacob right here.