Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Anna’s World
by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin
ISBN 978-1-935178-06-4
Chiron Books

Winner of several awards including the Moonbeam Children's Book Awards, and a Reader Views Reviewers Choice Award. 'Anna's World' is a gentle coming of age story, based in a turbulent time in American history. The book combines history and fiction with a powerful message about moral choice.

It is 1845. Fourteen year old Anna Coburn has barely survived an attack of typhoid after a flood that has left many of her neighbours dead. Her country is on the verge of war with Mexico, but no one thinks she should talk about it. Faced with financial trouble, her father sends her to live at a Shaker village.

The austere life expected of her with the Shakers upsets Anna at first - it is a world of forced segregation between sexes, prolonged periods of enforced silence, hard labour and limited contact with the 'World'. Precocious Anna finds life here tedious and oppressive. Yet, she finds friends and kindred spirits too - Sister Zenobia, the charismatic brother Seth, and celebrated author Henry David Thoreau himself. And, despite her many apprehensions, Anna turns out to be more Shaker than she realizes. When she leaves the village to join her father and his new wife in Boston, she finds the outside world both unpleasant and morally conflicted. Newly wealthy, her father expects Anna to lead a life of leisure like other girls her age and social status. Slavery exists as well as apathy for the people of Mexico, being slaughtered in a war with the USA that they are unprepared for. Worse, Anna's father‘s fortune is built on this very war, in partnership with a man who has betrayed the Shakers and threatened her life. Even as Anna struggles to reconcile her life with her beliefs, she is thrown into danger again.

The plot makes a smooth trajectory from history to mystery, weaving in some very powerful observations on moral choices and conviction in one’s beliefs. Anna is a compelling protagonist, sensitive and aware, and through her eyes the reader is offered a child’s eye view of two vastly different worlds. Neither the ‘World’ nor Shaker life is ideal, and the narrative deftly reveals Anna’s growing maturity as she learns to question and negotiate the hurdles she confronts in each. I especially liked the way a real historical figure, Thoreau, was introduced into the story, guiding Anna gently along on the journey she takes in this book toward finding herself and her calling.

There is a telling metaphor about Shaker shoes, which are made identical for either foot. Like Shaker life itself, the shoes do not fit Anna at first, and cause her discomfort. Yet by the end she finds she has grow into them.

*spoiler alert*

A heartwarming and thought provoking book about life, growing up and finding purpose.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Feisty fictional females

Cross posted here.

I get into a bookish frenzy over posts like this, this and this. I grew up reading incessantly, and now as a mom, I spend a lot of time looking for books my daughter can enjoy and grow with the way I did.

Like Chox said, there is a great overload of 'girly' girls out there in in the bookiverse . There are the Princess and Tiara Club series, for instance, that are all the rage with the Imp and her gang, but they're full of parties and royal balls and the general good girliness that really set my teeth on edge. While I loved pretty much everything Enid Blyton wrote as a kid, I have to say in hindsight that her girls really did not do much. Amelia Jane and the Naughtiest girl in school are generally chastised for doing anything out of the ambit of things Blyton considered appropriate for girls; the same goes for the various boarding school series she authored.George, the tomboy from the Famous Five, was perhaps the most adventurous girl Blyton ever came up with, and even she usually plays second fiddle to her male cousins and Tommy the dog.

But we've found some spunky girls in books these past few years, including some gems by Indian writers. While they have all been in books marked for older age groups, I've introduced them to the Imp anyway and she has certainly enjoyed them too.

So here's my addition to the lists drawn up by Chox and Ra( I love all the books they mention in their lists, and won't repeat them)

Firstly, Indian authors/ characters...

The three heroines of the stories in Unprincess! by Manjula Padmanabhan. As the title suggests, these are not girly girls, but smart sensible problem solvers. So there's Kavita, who rescues a busload of screaming girls from being eaten by a giant, Sayoni who tames nightmares, and (our favourite) Urmila, a girl so ugly she is used as a weapon of sorts.

Mati, from Journey to the City of Six Gates by Graeme McQueen (ok, a Candadian author, but the book is no tourist's view)- a big favourite at home still. it's a fantasy set in ancient India, and weaves a number of strands into its very smart plot - adventure, gender, evironmentalism. A book like The Sound of Music - perfect on its own, yet leaving you longing for a sequel.

Viks, from The Smile of Vanuvati, by Harini Gopalswami Srinivasan - a nicely paced adventure set on an archaeological dig. This is a book that asks to be made into a film, (Vishal Bharadwaj-ji, are you out there?) it mixes fantasy with history with good old fashioned mystery. The author's next book, Gind, is just out, and looks promising too.

Amie, from Amie and the Chawl of Colour, by Chatura Rao. This one is hard to find in shops, though her next book, Meanwhile, Upriver, is usually available. My review of it here.

Aditi, from the series by Suniti Namjoshi

Izzy Mumu from Bringing back Grandfather and Maya from Maya Running, both by Anjali Banerjee.

The entire cast of The Battle for No. 19, by Ranjit Lal, about a group of girls caught in a house in Delhi during the anti Sikh riots in 1984, and their struggle to stay alive. The story does not shy away from violence and one of the characters actually kills someone, but it is dealt with very well. (The only one in this list I haven't read with the Imp yet)

There is also Chip off the Old Blockhead by Rupa Gulab, and The Summer of Cool by Suchitra Krishnamurthy, which take a humorous look at older girls and their problems. Not on my favourites list by a long shot, but I expect the Imp will enjoy them when she is eight or nine. Also heard recently about a Foxy Four series begun by Subhadra Sengupta.

Some characters by other authors that we have loved..

Fern from Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White

Lucy from the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis. There is all manner of religious and chauvinistic preachiness in them, but all this is spoken in glum adult hindsight. As a child, I was blown away by this land on the other side of a cupboard.

Leslie from The Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. We've actually read this one already, but I think the Imp will probably like revisiting it later. We saw this as a film first, when the Imp was around four, and t got us talking about a lot of complex issues - alienation, bullying, the death of a child. It also gave us the line we consider our motto - The greatest prize in life is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. I actually like the film way more than the book, because of the way it brings the imaginary world of Terabithia and Jess's drawings to life.

The girls from books by Eva Ibbotson , Judy Blume and Jacqueline Wilson.

Jeremy from Slob, by Ellen Potter

And here are some girls I look forward to introducing to the Imp when she is a little older..

The Madcap of the School by Angela Brazil, a very old and very entertaining school story. Link to the free ebook here.

Sally from the Sally Lockhart Mysteries by Philip Pullman

Lyra Belacqua from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman - the sort of books I'd want with me if I'm ever shipwrecked on some deserted island. I haven't really read these out to the Imp, but certainly described the story to her. We remain fascinated by daemons.

Sophie from Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder.

Smilla from Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, by Peter Hoeg

The Brass Monkey from Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

I expect she will read Ayn Rand in her teens like I did, classics like Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and We the Living. While these have some tremendous male characters like Howard Roark and John Galt for her to inspired by, I could never stand the female characters Rand wrote - whiny, overly dramatic, masochistic ninnies the lot of them. She did a Blyton too.

Are there other girls out there in the bookiverse you can introduce us to? Do tell.


Picture books:
Today is MY Day, by Anushka Ravishankar.
The Wacky Witch War, by Ellen Jackson

(Some additions, courtesy Linda Sanders-Wells)
Harriet's Had Enough!, by Elissa Haden
Beatrice Doesn't Want To, by Laura Numeroff
Martha Doesn't Say Sorry, by Samantha Berger
Maggie's Monkeys, by Linda Sanders-Wells

For Older Girls:
Victory Song, by Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee (thanks, Chox!)
Mma Ramotswe from the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander Mccall Smith

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas

Move over Harry Potter. The next big thing is here. It is a trilogy (so far) entitled ‘ The Magic Thief’ – with two books published.

The protagonist is Conn, a young gutter boy who fights for survival in the poorer part of town. When he attempts to pick a wizard’s pocket, he steals the locus magicalicus, an all powerful stone that wizards use to practice magic. The wizard, Nevery, is amazed that the stone has not killed Conn instantly and therefore takes him on as a servant. But a series of unexpected events ensue and Conn becomes the wizard’s apprentice.

Conn is special because the magic and he share an unexplained bond – leading it to protect him and ensure his safety in the most trying of circumstances. When there is a crisis involving the depleting levels of magic in the city, it is Conn who discovers that the magic is being entrapped and frees it at great personal risk.

Probably because he has been outside the system always and because he relates to the magic differently from the others, Conn finds it easy to believe things that are practically heresy for the wizards of the time. For example, he believes that the magic is a living thing and that the spells the wizards speak are its language.

The books are page turners and score high on both drama and action– street fights, explosions, treachery, evil magicians, powerful dark beings created for the sole purpose of destruction, and more. Serious situations are often laced with humor so even while you wonder how Conn will get out of this one, you cannot help but laugh at his sudden insights.

Although the books are narrated by Conn, it weaves in letters from the characters, mainly Nevery, so that we get an idea of what is going on behind the scenes, unknown to Conn. A clever tactic that does away with the limitations of the first person narrative.

Conn is on a journey to discover himself and the nature of magic. And as the pages turn, he begins to understand things gradually. Journeying with him is the solitary Nevery, who moves out of his own loneliness to forge a relationship with Conn and eventually believe in Conn’s theory of magic. There is Rowan, the Duchess’s daughter, who learns more about the city she will eventually govern, thanks to her friendship with Conn. By forming relationships with each other, the characters evolve through the book, thus allowing us to feel that the book grows not just in terms of events but also dynamically.

In contrast to these characters are the wizards of Wellmet who refuse to understand or accept anything new, who will spend all their time consulting old books rather than facing up to the reality of the age they live in

One of my favorite characters is Benet, Nevery’s bodyguard – a man of few words. When he is not fighting off bad characters, he is baking delicious biscuits. Among Benet’s other unexpected talents are an ability to knit. A well rounded person, wouldn’t you say?

The illustrations at the beginning of each chapter are beautifully drawn. Antonio Javier Caparo’s maps and drawings make real the characters and the geography.

Yes, it is classified as Young Adults fiction and can be predictable in parts. And I would like to see a more extensive use of magic by the characters But Conn has a quirky, irreverent voice that I promise you will enjoy!

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Servants’ Quarters by Lynn Freed

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 978 0 15 11288 6

If the test of the writer’s craft is in making both good and bad characters equally compelling and readable, then Lynn Freed certainly aces this one. Her book, ’The Servants’ Quarters’, has some supremely unlikeable characters, be it the beautiful and aimless narrator, Cressida, her grasping mother or their wealthy benefactor, Mr Harding . And yet, this slim book with its spare and fluid narrative keeps you hooked and eager to know the fate of these frail, flawed people.

Set in an unnamed location in South Africa in the years following World War II, the story follows the relationship between Cressida and Harding over a decade. When they first meet, she is a precocious nine year old with a father in a coma, facing imminent financial ruin, while he is a much older war veteran who has suffered severe disfigurement in combat. For reasons not immediately clear, he begins supporting the family, even moving them to the servants’ quarters of his own house. His mentoring of Cressida seems avuncular (if condescending) at first, but soon begins to take on more predatory overtones that people around them either do not notice or choose not to. For all her reservations and despite knowing about his other affairs, Cressida is slowly drawn toward the man and he becomes the only stable constant in her life, and her most important influence, as things around her change. She blooms into a beautiful teenager, struggling with her silent love for Harding and her yearning to be free of her mother. She is directionless, bored, and casually toys with men who are besotted with her, even as she waits for Harding to notice her and whisk her away to his world of privilege.

As much as this is a love story, it is also a frank examination of the dynamics between rich and poor in the claustrophobic town that Cressida lives in , and that both she and her mother long to be freed from. Intertwined with these stories is a narrative on the devastating consequences of war, be it on Harding who has survived combat and prisoner camps, or the young Jewish Cressida who is haunted for years by nightmares of German soldiers . This shared anguish becomes a bonding force between the two, even as the people around them remain indifferent to it or choose to move on.

If you are looking for a story about a girl finding her wings and flying away, of a love that sets her free ..this isn't it. A bleakness hangs over the narrative, reminiscent of Dickens - the voice of the narrator grows from that of a knowing, free spirited child to that of a more cynical woman, changed forever by Harding's unwholesome attentions.If Harding is drawn to her fierce spirit as a child, he also manages to squash it completely over the years, leaving her an infatuated teenager with little on her mind but him. As a child she has been tormented by the fate of millions of Jews like her in the War, yet as a grownup the apartheid that must surely have existed around her at the time, never once finds mention. Clearly, Cressida's world has shrunk from the boundlessness of her childhood, to the social and emotional distance that separates her from her warped Daddy long legs. The biggest tragedy for me here was that, despite her revulsion for her grasping and opportunistic mother, and despite being offered the chance to go to university and escape this town on her own terms, Cressida nonetheless ends up just like her mother in many ways.

Freed keeps a clear unflinching eye on her characters, charting their lives with prose that is at once precise and nonjudgmental. You may never like Cressida or Harding, you may flinch at the idea of their romance, yet when it does come about, you cannot help hoping they find a golden sunset to walk into. If this is 'Beauty and the Beast' retold, it is also a retelling that captures the beasts within every one of its characters, as they strive to be redeemed by love from the worst in themselves.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A lot more than just Harry

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Release August 10, 2009

How easy it would be to label this book a Harry Potter for adults. Here are all the familiar ingredients — a gifted but unrecognized boy genius with a rather distant family, a school of magic hidden in plain sight that takes him in, a colourful cast of students and teachers among whom our hero discovers himself and, of course, a fearsome evil that lurks in the wings waiting to strike. There is even a school sport involving magic, a sort of supernatural checkers equivalent to Hogwarts’
quidditch. Yet this book is a lot more— a coming of age tale that examines the pleasures and perils of great powers in the hands of the young , loss of innocence, the strength and fragility of love , and the struggle to come to terms with the disappointment of the real world. And though it fails to deliver on the tremendous promise of the first half, it is nevertheless a must read for the audacity in which it turns the rather familiar themes of the fantasy genre around.

Our hero, Quentin Coldwater, is your average teenager in present day Brooklyn, though brilliant and already possessed of strange powers that no one else seems to notice. He finds solace in a series of books from his childhood, about the magical land of Fillory and the adventures of a band of intrepid children there. Then, a routine interview to an Ivy League school leaves him with a dead body and a mysterious exchange with a woman who proceeds to visit him sporadically through the book, and sets him on the path to Brakebills, a college of magic on the banks of the Hudson that is invisible and out of bounds to all but the chosen.

Rather predictably, Quentin emerges as a mage with promise — he shines in his studies, attracting the attention of his teachers, his seniors and a troubled but gifted young student whom he falls in love with. After the adrenaline rush of college, however, life in the real world is a let down. Supported by a generous trust fund run by Brakebills, Quentin and his friends have neither the need nor a practical way to use their powers in conventional careers. Bored and directionless, they rapidly descend into a hedonistic life of drugs, alcohol and casual sex. Then, one of them discovers that Fillory exists for real, and the friends decide to visit, only to have their complacence about their strength stripped away. What begins as a rather casual picnic quickly descends into a horrific confrontation with the Beast, and a battle for their lives against teeming armies of creatures far removed from anything they have imagined, or are prepared for. Barely escaping with his life, Quentin is forced to deal with loss, heartbreak and the realization that he has been nothing more than a pawn in a far greater game, begun long before his initiation into magic.

The first half of the book is overly long, but crackles with energy — the writing is fast paced, the characters are intriguing. Grossman has a great style of writing, sparse yet insightful, and often very funny . For all their magical powers, Quentin and his friends are still just hormonally charged kids, and Grossman realistically reveals the weaknesses and compulsions that lurk beneath their powers . This book will delight fantasy literature enthusiasts like myself, as it doffs its hat at all the greats — Fillory and its child explorers seem straight out of C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, a wish fulfilling creature reminiscent of the Questing Beast from the stories of T H White, roams Fillory. A drunk student babbles about that Hogwarts highlight, quidditch, and even Edward Lear finds a reference.

Yet Fillory is not the world of childish innocence that is celebrated in these classics,where the morally upright always triumph. It is, if anything, a dangerous place that does not suffer intruders gladly, especially cocky young mages who think themselves indestructible. Nor is it a place for escape, as the fate of the Beast makes clear. At this juncture, the story dons the garb of a cautionary tale, warning against dabbling with forces you may control but never truly comprehend. Sadly, the narrative of the final two sections of the book succumbs to the same exhaustion that has taken hold of Quentin by now.

Quentin himself is a disappointment as a hero and therefore all the more intriguing. He is talented, yes, but also
complacent, arrogant and , for all his resilence and dedication to his craft, easily led astray by drugs, alcohol and casual sex. After the unnecessarily prolonged build up to the confrontation with the Beast, his contribution to the battle is little more than fainting and getting bitten. That he lives at all is only because of the sacrifice of someone he has flippantly betrayed earlier in the book. Nor is he very heroic after his brush with death . As he slowly recovers and the truth about the Beast and Fillory unravels before him, Quentin beats a retreat,only to be rescued from himself in an exuberant finale that is straight out of the Matrix movies and clearly indicates that Quentin and company have not wisened up after all.

Still, this is seems like the first of a series that , like the Fillory books did for Quentin, may eventually “get you out, really out, of where you were and into something better.”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Short Girls

Short Girls, by Bich Minh Nguyen
Release: July 27, 2009
ISBN 978-0-670-02081-2

Van and Linny Luong are as different as it is possible for sisters to get – one, a plain Jane overachiever who seems to have found success in love and her career; the other - pretty , glamorous and directionless. Yet both have secrets – Van’s husband has abruptly ended their picture perfect marriage without explanation; Linny gets involved with a married man just as she has begun establishing a career. Even as both sisters struggle with heartbreak and humiliation, they meet again at their father’s house to help him celebrate his American citizenship. Surrounded by the people and memories of their past, and connected by their shared estrangement from their Vietnamese heritage, the sisters hesitantly reach out to each other. Over the course of a few weeks, they forge a new relationship that helps them resolve their own personal issues.

Bich Minh Nguyen’s (pronounced Bit Min Nwin) first book, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, was a well received memoir of her childhood and teenage years as a first generation Vietnamese American . Much like that book, this one too is about the search for identity and a sense of belonging, and each character struggles with it in their own ways. If Van is suddenly forced to be her own person after years of living upto the expectations of others, Linny finds herself drawn to the very people and customs she has spent her adult life trying to escape. Both sisters in turn chafe against the filial ties that bind them to their cantankerous father, even as they consider the possibility that he may have been unfaithful to their deceased mother. Mr Luong, after a lifetime of disillusionment with his adopted country, accepts citizenship in a final bid for success as an inventor of gadgets for short people. His obsession with shortness could just as well be his reaction to his own feelings of alienation in America, his appliances a way of being seen, heard and acknowledged in a land he remains foreign to. There is even an interesting subplot involving Van’s work as an immigration lawyer, and the increasing difficulties faced by her clients in post 9/11 America.

Nguyen examines her characters with a keen eye and a gentle touch – there is a calm fluid quality to her prose that kept me riveted to the book. Parallels to Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan are evident, not just in the common themes of inter-generational relationships among immigrants , but also in the attention to the tiny nuances of these complex, layered characters. And much like Tan and Lahiri have done in their work, Nguyen too alternates her focus between Van and Linny’s lives, revisiting their childhood through the lenses of their respective memories.

The plot does head for a rather conventional , crowd-pleasing end, which I felt a little disappointed by, especially where the resolution of Linny’s life is concerned. I was also a little baffled by the graphics of the book cover, which do very little for the very engaging story within.

A subdued yet compelling read, and a finely detailed study of the ties that bind us, confound us and make us who we are.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Raggedy Ann Heart, by Heather McPhaul

Raggedy Ann Heart, by Heather McPhaul
ISBN: 1-4196-8627-5
Released: 2008

Author Heather McPhaul has crafted a charming coming of age tale in her debut novel ‘Raggedy Ann Heart’, about a family struggling to get by in rural West Texas in the 70s.

Twelve year old Lindy Logan’s life is one long uphill struggle- she is a figure of ridicule at school, and greatly overshadowed at home by her pretty kid sister, Jo, who seems to have all their mother’s attention. Their penury is a source of constant embarrassment to her, and the reason she has to toil on her father’s farm. Meanwhile, puberty strikes and Lindy is horrified both at her changing body and the thoughts in her head that she is convinced make her a bad girl. Lindy’s charismatic Momma has watched her own dreams of stardom turn to dust, and struggles to adjust to a life of menial work and frugality. Her two daughters, as alike as chalk and cheese, constantly battle for her attention. Then tragedy strikes, and Momma and the girls are forced to re-examine their lives, and resolve their issues with each other.

The characters of this book are an interesting and complex lot – Lindy, with her fixation on TV sitcoms, and near obsessive hand washing; Jo, with her pretty face, her imaginary friends and her surprising reputation as a fierce fighter (Jo the Finisher) at school. Also Momma, a mercurial woman, struggling to reconcile her dreams with the life she is forced to lead. She is often shallow and thoughtless, and faces petty social prejudice from the women in the community, yet has the strength to offer support to one of them when they fall from grace. It takes the shadow of illness over her life for her to learn to value it.

I enjoyed this novel, and its poignant depiction of a troubled mother- daughter relationship. McPhaul narrates the exploits of this dysfunctional family with gentle humour and gives the reader a peek into the difficult, often terrifying, world of a twelve year old. Lindy reminded me in some ways of perhaps the most famous tortured teen in contemporary fiction– Adrian Mole. Much like him, Lindy is a shy introvert who unerringly lands herself in excruciatingly embarrassing situations, yet - through her sharp observations of her friends and relatives, in her disappointing encounter with the boy she fancies, in her final comprehension of her sister’s imaginary world- reveals a maturity far beyond her years.

Despite the humour, Lindy’s struggles to get her mother’s attention are still very touching, especially as her Momma’s own responses are far from kind, often echoing her own rejection by the women she has hoped to befriend. A photograph at the end of this book suggests that the author may have lived in West Texas herself as a girl, and the book may be part autobiographical. This would explain the detail with which she has captured life and people in the little community that this story is set in.

This is a story with strong female characters; by contrast, the men in the book are at best peripheral. Lindy’s father , for example, never draws the girls’ attention (or the readers') the way Momma does. He remains a character of contradictions, a man of literate interests who clearly is out of his element as a farmer, yet puts the family through hardship in his attempts at growing cotton. By the end, he seems to recede in the girls’ lives as a tragic figure , distanced emotionally and physically from them.

While the pace of the book is rather slow with an overly long first half, it builds up well to an end that is far from picture perfect, yet uplifting. A good read for teenagers and adults alike, about love, family and the tribulations of growing up.

'Raggedy Ann Heart' qualified as a finalist in Young Adult Fiction for the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and Indie Excellence Awards.

Thanks to Heather McPhaul for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Dead man talking

Talking to the Dead, by Bonnie Grove
Published by: David C Cook
Release: June 2009
ISBN : 978-1-4347-6641-0

Where “, mulls Kate Davis, the narrator and central character of this book, “did we get the idea that the best approach to facing death is to eat Bundt cake?” These words set the tone for Bonnie Grove's debut novel, by turns humorous and reflective, about self discovery and coming to terms with loss.

Young and newly widowed, Kate grieves for her beloved husband Kevin by withdrawing from her life and family. All of a sudden, she begins hearing Kevin’s voice speaking to her. Even as she wonders if she is losing her sanity, his presence becomes increasingly hostile. Her attempts to seek help from psychics, counselors and priests leave her steadily disillusioned, before she begins to look inward for the roots to her predicament . As she slowly unravels the bitter secrets of her marriage,she finds both betrayal among those closest to her, and allies in unlikely places. In her quest to find the strength and conviction to get past her sorrow and anger, she also moves from agnosticism to faith. Most of all, Kate realizes the need to forgive herself for the poor choices she has made in an effort to hold onto a relationship that was not as ideal as she believed.

Talking..’ charts Kate’s rocky path to emotional and spiritual recovery with empathy. The book paints a rather bleak picture of the mental health industry with its over-reliance on prescription drugs, and is also critical of over zealous evangelists and their harsh interpretation of the gospel. Grove mines familiar territory here; she is trained in Christian counseling, has authored a self help guide in the past, and is also married to a pastor.

The character of Kate is drawn well; despite the emotional blows she suffers, she emerges a survivor, and on her own terms. The plot involves finding both love and God, but these never overshadow Kate’s own quest for closure; rather, they emerge as natural consequences of her own passage from hurt towards healing. It is also open ended on the reasons Kate hears her husband’s voice; it chooses to stay focused on her journey towards life. However, in a narrative that is otherwise very believable, the religious experience she has towards the end feels both contrived and hurried - this story would have been just as strong without it, and just as much about finding faith. The book sags in the middle too, and could have benefited from tighter editing. Some characters appear rather stereotypical – the psychic and evangelist are cases in point, as also the tearful Blair, Kevin's best friend. But these are still minor issues in an otherwise interesting and readable book about one woman’s journey toward finding herself.

Thanks to Audra Jennings at The B&B Media group for sending us a copy of the book to review.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A war, a gift and one woman's search

The Box from Braunau: In Search of My Father's War, by Jan Elvin
Rel: May 28, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8144-1049-3

“Soldiers aren’t the only casualties of war”, says author Jan Elvin in the afterword of this engrossing memoir. ” Their families suffer as well although their battles are fought later, on the home front.”

While never diagnosed, Elvin’s father may have suffered the effects of post traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) long after his return from the front as an American soldier during World War II, in turn emotionally scarring his wife and children as well. Struggling to hide his trauma while providing for his family in the years following the War, Bill Elvin steadily became a controlling and emotionally remote father, prone to anxiety, erratic behaviour and sudden bouts of violence when startled. He became a respected reporter and a pillar of the community, but failed to preserve his marriage or build strong bonds with his four children. This book is the story of his daughter’s attempt , nearly fifty years later, at understanding what he went through during the war, and how this might have affected his life thereafter.

“The Box from Braunau : In Search of My Father’s War” begins with the author’s realization that a simple gift her father received during the war from a prisoner he helped liberate from the Nazis might hold the key to finally understanding him .This book chronicles her investigation into his experiences during World War II, many of which he never revealed to his family. As Elvin delves deeper into her research and encourages her father to begin speaking about his experiences, she realizes that he had witnessed not only frontline combat but also the chilling horrors of a slave labour camp in Austria .Meeting other veterans and survivors of the war, she further realizes that her family’s struggle was far from unique;thousands of families like hers struggled with PTSD then, and continue to do so around the world.

The narrative, interspersed with extracts from Bill Elvin’s lucid war time journal , is elegant and restrained; Elvin knows when to step back and let her father do the talking. The gaps in his journal, the issues he felt unable to write about, are filled in with meticulous research, giving the reader a seamless picture of the War from the American perspective. The book also debunks attempts to romanticize the war or civilian life during that period.

'The hills are alive with the sound of murder',says a speaker at a reunion of Holocaust survivors in Austria, not far from where that evergreen hit 'The Sound of Music' was filmed. 'The hills are alive with the sound of torture'. For every one with a sense of nostalgia about the so-called 'Good War', those lines serve as reminder of the true horrors the War stood for -the mass slaughter of innocents that the Nazis were allowed to get away with, as well as the needless loss of civilians and soldiers alike in a conflict that could have been prevented with sound economic reform.

Elvin painstakingly builds up a portrait of her father by delving right back into his childhood, examining the incidents that shaped him and guided him towards the choices he made. Bill Elvin emerges as a flawed but remarkable man, displaying great courage under adversity and dedicated to his family despite their subsequent estrangement. She is honest about her own feelings of anger and resentment towards her parents as she struggled to deal with their separation and the responsibilities this thrust on her. She also touchingly confesses that while the writing of this book may have helped her forgive him, it may have done nothing for her siblings, each of whom was affected in their own way by Bill's behaviour.

As much as this is a tribute to Bill Elvin, it is also about the author’s own search for closure on a lot of unresolved issues she had with her father. It is heartening to note that she does indeed achieve this and, towards the end of his life, grow closer to him. Above all, the book seeks to reach out to families of soldiers in past and ongoing combat zones around the world, to help them deal with the psychological battles that may continue long after they return home.

Thanks to Alice Northover of AMACOM Books for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Here's another book that looks at PTSD in a soldier from another Great War.

And here and here - past reviews of stories from the Holocaust.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Journeys of other kinds

A Trance after Breakfast and other passages, by Alan Cheuse
Sourcebooks, Inc.
ISBN 978-1-4022-1516-2
Release: June 9 2009

Halfway up a rocky trail leading to a glacier somewhere in New Zealand, the author’s guide quotes Proust, “Life consists not in seeing new things but in finding new ways of seeing.” Those lines pretty much sum up this engrossing new book by Alan Cheuse, the author and noted literary critic for National Public Radio’s ‘All Things Considered’ . Cheuse needs little introduction in the literary world, having previously authored such remarkable books as The Tennessee Waltz, The Light Possessed and To Catch the Lightning. In ‘Trance..’, he turns his skills as a writer, critic and keen observer of life to the wanderlust, physical, intellectual and spiritual, that has driven him through much of his life, and in turn influenced his writing.

These essays by Cheuse, previously featured in various publications like the San Diego Reader, Gourmet and the Antioch Review, take us - from his native New Jersey to places as diverse as Mexico, Bali and New Zealand, and right back again- on journeys of the heart rather than just the eye. Most of these essays are not your usual travelogues but seek to explore wider themes – the notion of home and belonging ; the idea of religious and cultural identity within a greater whole ; immersion as a linguistic tool as well as a broader cultural ideal.

Not all these journeys are taken by the author himself. In ‘Port of Entry’ , for instance, Cheuse- referring to himself as ‘the pilgrim’ – watches other peoples’ journeys, across the San Ysidro Port of Entry between Mexico and California. As he observes the men and women policing the border to weed out illegal immigrants and narcotics smugglers , he draws parallels to desperate immigrants around the world and across time, at border crossings much like this, struggling to reach their idea of a safe haven. ‘The Mexican Rabbi’ describes struggles of a different kind, as it traces the trajectory of Judaism in the Spanish culture, and the assertion of Jewish identity in present day Mexico.

Yet other journeys are purely literary ; ‘ Border Schooling’ begins as an eye witness account of a unique educational experiment, focused as much on cultural assimilation as on pedagogy. But along the way, it becomes an account of the author’s own lifelong affair with literature, and the journeys in reading he has made since his youth. Similarly, ‘Reading the Archipelago’ examines the ways the Indonesian islands have been described in literature, first by European authors like Conrad, Dekker and Couperus, and later by Maugham , Greene and Burgess. It is not until Cheuse turns to the work of indigenous writers that he realizes that the roots of his dissatisfaction with much of the earlier work lies in their being essentially the view of outsiders looking in, focused more with the ‘exotic’ than with the realities of life on the islands.

Ironically, some of the smaller essays in this collection veer towards precisely this kind of exotic portrayal, the view of the casual, if well meaning tourist. The title essay perhaps best represents this style of writing , as it offers the reader bemused observations on local colour and the hold that religion and rituals have on daily life in Bali, from the comforts of a luxurious resort that must surely cater only to foreign tourists like himself. But after a week of yoga, temple hopping and trance dancing, the author finds himself mesmerized by the island and its rituals, willing to let go of his skepticism and submit to greater powers he can briefly sense , yet never fully comprehend . After the essays on Tijuana in the section 'Crossing Borders', I confess this essay left me disappointed. Again, in ‘Kiwi Dreams’, the author finds himself drawn by the cinematic glories of New Zealand’s natural vistas to this tiny island, only to become rapidly overwhelmed , then detached. And in ‘An Artist’s Adobe’, an account of a visit to the house in New Mexico where renowned artist Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted in the last decades of her life, offers little more than descriptions of room layouts.

Cheuse is at his poetic best when writing about water - its powerful draw on travellers, immigrants and gold prospectors alike, and his own lifelong fascination with the ocean. ‘Thirty five Passages across water’ takes us back and forth in time, beginning with memorable events in the author’s own life, then rather cheekily tracing a connection to Noah, prehistoric life and Genesis itself. And the poignant ‘Coda: Two Oceans’, a fitting endpiece to this book, pays a lyrical tribute to the two oceans that have shaped the author’s life. If the Atlantic is to him the shores of his childhood and akward adolescence in New Jersey, the Pacific evokes the romance of adventure , limitless imagination and a cultural tapestry on its American shores that “…seemed more a fusion of presences than a melting away of differences.”

"I am", concludes Cheuse,"Atlantic-born and my mother's child, but Pacific-bound, and my father's man."

Well-crafted, insightful and often profound, a book about finding not just beauty and newness, but also oneself in the journeys that invariably define us - even those of us travelers that are strictly armchair-bound.

Thanks to Heather Moore at Sourcebooks for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Little Lamb Lost, by Margaret Fenton

Little Lamb Lost marks the debut of novelist Margaret Fenton, and introduces a new detective into the mystery genre– Claire Conover.

Claire is a young social worker with the Department of Human Services in Birmingham , focused on helping kids from troubled homes. And yet, when one of her young clients is found dead, her faith in her abilities at her job is shaken. Could the child be dead because of her own mistakes in the casework? Faced with the loss of both reputation and career, Claire sets out to seek answers, even as the boy’s mother is arrested for the crime. Claire is armed with little more than determination and a belief in the young mother’s innocence , yet continues undaunted even as she begins to fear for her life.

This is a gripping, fast paced book and the author keeps us guessing right till the end. Thrills, car chases and red herrings abound, as Claire inches closer to the truth and suspects multiply. She finds allies in some unexpected places, and a very interesting romantic triangle develops . Claire is also confronted with unpleasant family secrets and the corrosive effects of drug addiction and abuse .

Debut novels often borrow from the author’s own life, and this one is no exception. Much like her heroine, the author has also worked in child and family welfare, and lives in the Birmingham area in which this story is set. This book is commendably rich in detail; the area of Birmingham comes alive in Fenton’s descriptions of it - I especially enjoyed the detailing of Claire's drives and even the car chase sequences. Also food - a lot of the scenes play out over lovingly described meals that Claire rather guiltily enjoys, even as she worries bout her weight. Claire the novice detective is nowhere in the league of her peers yet – Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone readily come to mind - but makes up for this with dogged determination , a keen understanding of people and a dedication to helping people find their way.

The writing does have some uneven moments, especially in the development of Claire’s romance. The denouement also feels rushed, and rather conveniently wound up. And while impulsive, risk taking Claire chooses gentle nerd Grant over the dashing Kirk, surely there is a crackle of unresolved attraction there that begs to be explored? Nevertheless, this book offers much to hook mystery buffs - a gutsy and endearing heroine, a good hand with mystery plotting, and the promise of much more to come in future Conover capers.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

SLOB, by Ellen Potter

Author Ellen Potter, creator of the delightful Olivia Kidney series, brings us yet another memorable hero in her new book, SLOB. In the short time since its release earlier this month, the book has already received rave reviews, as well as a Junior Library Guild Award.

'I'm sure you've noticed that a lot of books start out with some kid's first day in a new school. The thing is, when you are fatter and smarter than the national average, practically every day is like the first day at a new school'. With these words, we are introduced to Owen Birnbaum, an overweight 12 year old with an IQ just one point short of genius, for whom school is a daily nightmare of taunting classmates and tyrannical gym teachers. Worse, someone has begun stealing his precious daily ration of three Oreo cookies- the one bright spot in his school day - and the most likely suspect just happens to be the scary new boy who may carry a knife in his socks. Yet, despite being a self confessed coward, Owen sets out to trap the thief. Meanwhile, he scavenges demolition sites for machine parts and scrap to build a mysterious invention called Nemesis.

Clearly there is more to Owen than he lets on."Everyone thinks they know the fat kid. We're so obvious', says Owen, just as we settle back for what seems like yet another light hearted story about growing up and whacky inventions. And the truth, when it arrives, well into the middle of this book, is as disturbing as it is unexpected.

SLOB is at one level a story about learning to deal with being different, and standing up for friends and for who you are. At a deeper level it is about a child's struggle to come to terms with an extremely traumatic experience and get past it. Along the way, Owen discovers his own courage , resilience and capacity to forgive. His one conviction has always been that he is the smartest person around – indeed, he is faintly arrogant about this in his dismissal of the intelligence of the people around him . This also leaves him feeling isolated, as he struggles with issues he thinks his friends and family can neither comprehend nor solve the way he can. Yet, by the end, he realizes he hasn't been very smart at all, especially in his assessment of his little sister ("very so-so in the cerebral cortex region") and the new boy, Mason Ragg ("evil comic book character, bogeyman").

The lessons this well crafted book offers are subtle yet powerful, and conveyed with gentle humour. Owen’s voice - he narrates this story - is utterly convincing , and his self deprecating wit and sly asides about teachers and family kept me hooked to this story from page one. (He reminded me a great deal of another Owen that I hold dear, since I first met him in a school library). SLOB has several surprises in store for the reader, none of which I ever saw coming. The book has some other delightful and complex child characters that gradually reveal their strengths through the course of the story– Owen’s sister Caitlin who insists on being considered a boy; Arthur and Mason, even sports jock Andre who, behind his bluster and back slapping, does seem to care about Owen. In contrast, the largely peripheral adult characters are more stereotypical – the caring mom, the supportive neighbor, the cruel teacher – yet very believable.

Watch out for one final surprise at the very end – a small yet wonderfully life affirming gesture that had me awestruck, humbled and teary eyed all at once. This is a book I shall keep returning to for a long time.

Thanks to Ellen Potter for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Stranger, by Max Frei

The Labyrinths of Echo, a successful Russian series, makes its English debut with this book. Written under the pseudonym Max Frei, the series chronicles the adventures of a young man of the same name in a mysterious world of magic that he visits in his dreams.

Max the twenty-something character is, by his own admission, a loser . He is also an insomniac with surprisingly vivid dreams that he can recollect quite accurately. Before long, he meets Sir Juffin Hully in his dreams and is recruited to the nightwatch of the Minor Secret Investigative Force of the Unified Kingdom. Max, it turns out, has magical powers he himself is unaware of, which he now uses as a policeman of sorts, hunting down perpetrators of crimes involving magic and other supernatural forces.

What follows is a hilarious romp through Echo, capital city of the Unified Kingdom as Max quickly earns a reputation as a formidable investigator. He finds a motley crew of friends in his new role – the hilarious Melifaro, the upright Lonli-Lokli, and the beautiful Melamori. Echo is far removed from anything Max has ever known – clothing is strange, one night stands are formalized; he finds he can communicate with his colleagues and even dogs through Silent Speech. The language of Echo is formal, almost archaic, with everyone being addressed as 'Sir' or 'Lady'. Technology is nowhere near the levels Max has been used to. Yet, magic and telepathy more than make up for all this, as does the cuisine, that finds frequent mention in the book. Max readily leaves his old world for Echo, yet it is never far from him, slipping out in references to Rutger Hauer and Diana Rigg, and in the ‘awesomes’ that sometimes pepper his Silent Speech. Max is a success in Echo like he never was back in his old world, with one exception - his losing streak with romance seems to have followed him to Echo too, as seen in his unsuccessful flirtation with Melamori.

Now the basic premise of this story is not in itself new; travel between worlds and the transformation of a character from zero to hero have been perhaps the most enduring literary fantasies of our times, explored in tales as diverse as 'Gulliver’s Travels', and 'The Chronicles of Narnia' and more recently, such blockbusters as the Dark Materials trilogy and the Harry Potter series. The book jacket itself makes a reference to the Boy who Lived, likening Max to an adult, cigarette-smoking, less than successful Potter. In that respect, 'The Stranger' does tread rather familiar ground – magical occurrences, strange powers and stranger characters with tongue twisting names. It also seems to doff its cap at its literary peers; Max discovers Echo much like Alice does Wonderland . And he crosses between worlds in a manner reminiscent of Harry Potter and his magic bus.

Very little of Max's past is revealed; in fact, the reader is thrown almost from page one into his new world. The book is not very plot driven either, but is presented as a series of cases that Max and his friends solve, that can quite easily be read out of sequence. The cases all seem very speedily solved; Max’s own hitherto hidden powers conveniently emerge in times of danger to help him escape and be hailed yet again as hero. This is an extremely long book (544 pages) and a certain monotony does set in after a while, with its case-driven structure. There is quite a lot of slapstick humour that I did not always find amusing. I was also annoyed by the central female character, Lady Melamori. Here is a seasoned investigator at ease when booking criminals, yet dissolving into tears or nervous skulking in the presence of Max, whom she is clearly attracted to. Their flirtation and frequent tiffs would have been more fitting in a high school romance, not this otherwise engrossing book.

For all the issues I had with the book, it is nevertheless very readable, equal parts whimsy and mystery. It is also quite clearly meant as an introduction to Max and this enormous cast of characters, paving the way for the other nine books already out in the original Russian. I have a strong feeling that successive books in the series will be more plot-driven, perhaps even darker than this humorous volume.

The one mystery greater than Max’s future in Echo is perhaps the real identity of the author. While a little Google search suggests that the author might be a young Russian woman, I’m quite content to believe in the illusion of the writer Frei, and wait for the next instalment of what promises to be a terrific literary ride.

Thanks to Vida Engstrand from Overlook Press for sending us a copy of the book to review.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse from Moscow to Siberia, by Daniel Kalder

Strange Telescopes chronicles Daniel Kalder's journeys through post-perestroika Russia, Siberia and the Ukraine in search of four people who view the world 'through strange telescopes' - individuals that have created alternate realities for themselves. His quests take him to remote places far from any conventional tourist route, seeking a peek into these unique worlds that exist not so much on the ground as in people's heads. Are they visionaries, con artists or just deluded eccentrics? Either way, suggests Kalder, they represent a phenomenon rather uniquely Russian, triggered by individual struggles to survive the economic and social upheaval caused by the fall of the USSR.

An article in a Russian magazine he cheekily dubs 'Residential Property Shit' leads Kalder to the first of these four parallel worlds, the 'Underground Planet' in the sewer network under Moscow, and its self crowned monarch, the Digger.

Next stop the Ukraine, where Father Grigory aka the Teacher briskly conducts exorcisms in a remote rural outpost, while also managing a large farm and delivering each of his fifteen children himself.

Next, a remote commune in Siberia where an ex-traffic cop renamed Vissarion, apparently Christ's Second Coming, leads his faithful flock towards salvation and an ecofriendly future.

And finally, a meeting with Nikolai Sutyagin, architect of Russia's tallest wooden building and, by his own admission, perestroika as well.

The four stories are interesting case studies in the power of belief. Each of these characters has an unshakeable conviction in their own mission, in the 'rightness' of their actions. And this is a conviction that is infectious - three of these men have attracted a following for their ideas, some of whom we meet through the course of the book. By contrast, Kalder comes away from each contrast bewildered by this steadfast faith that spurs people to renounce their lives and embrace the hardship and deprivation that come with it.

The narrative is sprinkled with postcards and historical vignettes, chronicling a quest that is sometimes bizarre, sometimes surreal and always entertaining. Kalder writes with wry humour and vigour,focusing his scathing wit both on the people he meets as well as himself. This is not, however, the avuncular humour of say, Bill Bryson's travel writing. Kalder never really develops a fondness for the people or country he is writing about; at one point he dismisses an entire generation as 'pasty faced wankers' and elsewhere,he refers to them as "..people who turned out to be saps, fools, thieves, baby-rapists and mass murderers."

Still, this is compelling prose that kept me hooked. And as much as this is a book about the power of faith, it is also about disillusionment - mostly the author's own. He approaches each encounter with enthusiasm and the excitement of the seeker looking to believe, if he would only be shown a sign; by the end, however, he comes away let down by the wide variance between what each world has promised, and the realities it presents him with. The book ends almost abruptly, with Kalder rushing through his meeting with Sutyagin before leaving Russia altogether. By then , he has run out of questions; his disillusionment with these worlds and with his own need to seek them out seems complete. He has no great thesis to deliver either or conclusions to draw ; all he can say is that he has been merely "..a combination of vibrating air particles in their ears and light reflected on the back of their eyeballs' a fleeting distraction, an interruption in the midst of their important work... And now they continued to gaze through their strange telescopes at marvellous stars so distant that no one else could see them."

For me, this book was as much about the author himself - our own strange telescope into the fantastic worlds he seeks out and examines- and the compulsions that draw him onward on each of these journeys.

A unique travelogue - bizarre yet beautiful, much like the region it portrays.

Thanks to Vida Engstrand from Overlook Press for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

Lottery, by Patricia Wood

I picked up this book with some apprehension as its story, of a young man with Downs' syndrome who wins 12 million dollars in the lottery, seemed to suggest too much of 'Forrest Gump' and the rather over rated 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time'. Indeed one could draw several parallels with both, especially the former - a simple hero with a tough talking maternal figure , the war-shattered best friend, the beautiful girl with her own secrets who appears way out of the hero's league.

Perry Crandall, the protagonist, lives a simple life with his grandmother and a small group of friends in smalltown USA. He has to put up with a lot of cruelty and ignorance from the people around him, including his own family, despite being independent and employed. When his grandmother dies, Perry at first finds himself cheated and abandoned by his family members and struggles to start afresh. Then he wins the lottery, becomes an overnight celebrity and everything is different. In a world where everyone is suddenly his friend and the people who once scorned or ignored him are now taking notice, Perry has to decide what his priorities are.

Much like "The Curious Incident..", this story is told in the first person in deliberately simple prose, to reflect the world through Perry's eyes. 'I am an auditor", he says. An auditor is a listener.." And that is indeed what Perry does best, as he lets the voice of his Gram guide him through the minefield that his victory threatens to become. He is smart but not shrewd, aware that his family is desperately trying to take the money from him, even as he writes them an endless series of cheques.

The plot follows a very conventional trajectory, with strong hints of Gump throughout (though Perry, thankfully, does not become an unwitting part of various landmark events in American history). He falls in love, suffers heartbreak, and finds it again. Some scenes felt contrived - the slapstick routine where Perry finds himself alone with Keith and a snarly dog in his cousin's house, for instance, or the impulsive trip to Hawaii where nothing really happens. At some point, though, I was won over. Much like its slow but sensible protagonist, the plot steadily works towards its predictable but still uplifting end.

It's a moral tale, of good and bad, the power of love over the lure of money, the value of friends and family. Nothing very novel, but told well through its simple, almost monotonous narrative.It's slow at the onset, but rewarding for readers who stay the distance with it. You can't help but cheer for this sweet courageous hero, and his real victories - finding love, friendship and purpose.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

This debut novel by a young English author skilfully recreates the bleak and harsh days of Stalinist Russia. It also introduces an interesting new hero in crime fiction, Officer Leo Demidov, a committed cog in the communist machinery whose life is upturned by an epiphany.

It is Moscow, 1953. Leo Demidov is a fast rising star in the MGB (State Security Committee, later replaced by the KGB) and a man who passionately believes in the State and the oppressive measures it uses, to establish the ideals it stands for. He himself is a willing participant in these measures, arresting and torturing suspected spies and dissidents,often on flimsy evidence. And since crime is considered a capitalist failing caused by poverty, the Communist state must necessarily be projected as crime-free - another illusion he happily supports.Until the bodies of mutilated children begin appearing, he witnesses the murder of innocent citizens by his subordinate and starts to question his beliefs.

Then, even as he invites the wrath of his superiors, he begins investigating what he suspects is the work of a serial killer. Faced with opportunistic subordinates and a government eager to squash what it considers his anti-State activities, he quickly finds himself arrested, tortured and demoted. Yet he soldiers on, escaping murder attempts and deportation to a gulag until he finds his answers in a shocking finale, in a place far from Moscow yet closer to him than he realizes.

At one level, this book is about a hunt for a vicious killer. At another, it plots the slow unraveling of a man's faith in everything he has believed in - his employer, the society he has helped build, his wife's loyalties. As he is reduced to the state of the common man he once terrorized as a MGB officer, Demidov realizes the suffering he has helped cause. He also finds the most unlikely allies in his quest - fellow prisoners, his boss in the militia he is bumped down into, his own estranged wife.

It is also a chilling story of a villain far more vicious than the killer - the State itself. This is a terrifying world of paranoia, violated civil liberties and the repression of a whole nation by a regime focused on ideals it cannot really afford to realize. It is a society far from equal -even as the marginalized are left deprived and victimized, corruption and nepotism thrive in the creamy layer of government employees and aye-sayers. It is a society that, for all its talk of equal opportunities and the greater common good, is finally responsible for creating the killer, and all the other criminals it is so desperate to ignore.

I enjoyed the break neck speed at which the plot proceeds, and the minimal yet effective prose. This is a classic thriller - it opens with a bang, pops up dead bodies and red herrings with clockwork regularity, and moves ahead at a swift, action packed pace before ending with yet another bang. The murder of children is always a troubling subject - it unearths our own primeval fears about the evil and perversion that lies dormant in people. It is also always symbolic (atleast in fiction) of the perpetrator's own childhood, of some suffering he or she might have endured. So it's a given that, at some point, the reader is overwhelmed not by the atrocities committed by the villain, but an image of him/ her as a traumatized child. For all that, I was still unprepared for how things turned out here, for a climax that was at once sad and shocking.

The book ends with more than one hint of a sequel, so here's looking forward to more Demidov mysteries soon. And, quite probably, a movie version too.

I'm on a sort of Russia trip these days, if only as an armchair traveller - after Child 44, the two books I'm currently reading are connected to that fascinating region too. One is the terrific Strange Telescopes, that can only be described as anti-travel writing. The other is the English translation of the Russian scifi best seller, The Stranger. Both explore parallel realities, entire worlds existing out of the ordinary - much like the communist state of Child 44. And much like this novel, very, very unputdownable.

Watch this space!