Friday, April 23, 2010

Out of the Blue - Belinda Jones

"Home sweet Crete." Such a nice way to finish off a romantic comedy don't you think? I have always been fascinated with Greece and 'am usually on the look out for books that are set there and Belinda Jones's Out of the Blue didn't disappoint. Largely.

Selena Harper is a thirty something Brit working on a luxury cruise ship. Her job has taken her everywhere: from Alaska, to Africa to New Zealand and she has seen it all, so to speak. Working on the ship with her is ladies man Officer Alekos from Crete with a reputation of breaking hearts. Alekos is taken with Selena and pursues her with a doggedness that has the entire ship watching amusedly. Selena does NOT want to be taken with Alekos and avoids him with the same doggedness. Does she like him? Is she attracted to him? Most probably, which is exactly why she wants him out of her way because she doesn't want her heart broken. In a nice twist of fate, when she leaves the ship for a two month vacation, instead of winding her way through rainy England to her friend's apartment, she finds herself on her way to sunny Crete with Alekos who has fractured his arm and enlists her to help him out with the family business. Selena tells herself that it is only for ten days and that she is doing a favour for a friend but what follows is the beautiful island that Alekos calls home, their neighbours, friends, the Agean Sea, Raki, Greek food and finally Alekos himself, whom Selena sees in a whole new dimension away from the ship and the adoring eyes of every female on board. Inevitably she falls for him; Alekos has always wanted her and ever since he clapped his eyes on Selena, only her. So what stops them both from embarking on a great Greek love story that will make the reader sigh in satisfaction? Enter Jules. Selena's (ex) (best) (friend). Is she a friend or a relationship wrecker? How does Selena get over the fact that Jules is hell bent on having a fling with Alekos? How does she feel when Alekos finally succumbs? And most importantly why does he succumb?

Predictably, the book has a happy ending. While it was enjoyable, I felt that the tangles were not sorted out believingly enough, the characters were not fleshed out as well as the reader would like them to be and certain aspects of the book have a very abrupt end without a satisfactory explanation. I will mostly not read it a second time but nevertheless it made for an engaging first read, if I ignored some of its faults. I would recommend this one for those who don't mind leaving their brains out for a few hours of sunny Greece.

PS - Hey all! Do visit my other blog There'sh a Moskeeto in my Foog if you have the time. I shall be grateful for any reader over there :)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Witnesses of War - Nicholas Stargardt

Not that I have read that many, but I doubt I will find another book that will curdle my blood and fill me with impotent rage the way this one did. Nicholas Stargardt, a historian from Oxford has given such a chilling account about the lives of children under Nazi dominance - German or Jewish, able-bodied or not. I knew going into this that it would not be an easy read, nevertheless I was unprepared for the kind of horror that lives within its pages: a window to an unspeakable past.

Witnesses of War is a non-fictional account of how children's lives got disrupted in the Europe of the Nazis. With the help of journal entries, drawings and anecdotes, Stargardt traces the origins of the Third Reich and follows the entire duration of the war and the final destruction of Nazism and denazification - all through the eyes of Children. Stargardt's voice is clear and the narration does not falter anywhere in the book: whether it is about the Jewish children in the ghettos or a young girl dying in one of the gas chambers, whether it is the death march, the final solution, the millions of children whose parents were inexorably made to board a train to a concentration camp and death, whether they are horrifying accounts of how the Nazis treated their own children who refused to conform, how the wounded and the disabled in Germany were gassed to death in asylums in a blind bid to "rid the Third Reich of bad blood", the words flow with almost a vehemence. He wants you to see things for what they actually were, he makes you view drawings of children, heartbreaking ones that will make you sob, pieces of verse, photographs, and he quotes a small Jewish boy in a ghetto who screamed,"I want to eat! I want to be German!" You might be sitting on the most comfortable couch in the house but in your mind, you are travelling all over Europe horror-struck at the destruction a few blinded, psychotic men unleashed upon millions of innocents.

There is nothing more to say perhaps about the contents of the book: the title and whatever little description I have given here will give those who want to read this book, a fair idea. There is however, one noteworthy point: Stargardt has given a completely impartial and unbiased account. His focus has been on children throughout the book and he has beautifully shown how the villains were the Nazis, how Germany suffered because of them, the kind of a response it evoked in all those who were affected by it. Neither does he wholly blame Germany itself, nor does he try to smooth over the atrocities committed by the Red Army and other Allied soldiers in occupied Berlin. An entire generation of children grew up in Nazi Germany, what of their confusion, their struggle with what they thought was morally right? The last common man, fought the war against the Allies - was he a Nazi who inherently believed that it was his right to oppress and destroy or was he just a pawn in a cruel game? What the Nazis ultimately did was to leave behind a maimed, belligerent nation. The author repeatedly states that post-war, many Germans were uncomfortable talking of their past and tried to blot it out altogether, many German children having been brought up in a certain way suddenly found themselves alienated from the only world they ever knew. As for the survivors of Himmler's "solution", Jewish or German, one can only wonder at the immensity of the nightmare they carried in their hearts.

Nicholas Stargardt has succeeded in explaining how this wasn't Germany's war, it was the Nazis'. These men were responsible for the genocide of millions of people among other forms of destruction because they saw fit. Witnesses of War is not for the weak-hearted and I would say it is most definitely not for children. It might leave you disturbed and helpless, then why read it? Because we need to know. We owe it to every single one of those victims and survivors, they need witnesses to their lives, to their history and it is ultimately the responsibility of all of us to never let the world forget how extremism can only wreak havoc and destroy, especially in these degenerate times.

PS - Hey all! Do visit my other blog There'sh a Moskeeto in my Foog if you have the time. I shall be grateful for any reader over there :)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Secret Countess - Eva Ibbotson

So. The Secret Countess. This was my first time reading Eva Ibbotson and it was very easy to lose myself in the story in just a few pages. Her writing is enchanting; all her books seem to have this touch of the fantastic and it is that very element that has made me her fan. And why not? We read books on dystopia, books that are so real that they leave us reeling, books that are high on intellect, books that increase and expand the dimensions of our minds. So why not a riches-to rags-to riches love story set in a beautiful mansion in post World War One England, between a young earl and a Russian refugee?

Rupert and Anna make such delightful protagonists that you can't help loving them both. Eva Ibbotson has a gift of making her characters do exactly what she wants them to do and more importantly, making her readers like or hate a character at her bidding. The book overflows with such lovely and horrid people alike.

The story is simple enough: Rupert, a pilot from WW1 is the new Earl of Mersham and during the war he meets and gets engaged to Muriel Hardwicke, a rich and beautiful heiress. Anna, a Russian countess is driven penniless along with her family and they flee to England for safety. Rupert never wanted to be an earl but with the death of his elder brother, this duty has been thrust upon him; Anna must seek work to support her poverty-stricken family and the employment agency sends her to Mersham as an under-house maid. So what happens when Anna and Rupert meet and become acquainted with each other? Whom does Rupert really love? The blindingly beautiful Muriel who barely fits into his life and looks upon everything and everyone he holds dear with contempt or Anna, thin Anna in her simple brown dress with the work hardened hands? Anna with her long dark hair and huge dark eyes that Rupert suddenly can't get out of his head? Although new, Anna is Mersham; her love for the house, the various eccentrics she comes to meet, all of it hurtle towards a heady climax when she falls in love with the newly-engaged Earl of Mersham. And you can't help loving her. Anna with the earnestness, her Russian, her sensitivity, her love for St.Petersburg and her italics.

The Secret Countess is a sumptuous novel with such wonderful descriptions of St.Peter's fabled city and of generally all things Russian that I perfectly agree with Ollie Byrne when she says that she wants to be Russian! I love this book for what it is, whatever imperfections it might have, it is such an engaging story that I never really noticed them. The Secret Countess is a book for weekends and vacations; for lazy afternoons when you have nothing to do and you are in the mood to read a story about Anna and Rupert and how they loved each other. Once upon a time, in London......

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Living in a Foreign Language - Michael Tucker

"You may have the universe, if I may have Italy," says Giuseppe Verdi, the 19th century Italian composer. I have never been to Italy but I have loved everything about it ever since childhood (enough to try and learn the language) and now, having read among a number of things, this particular book, I can only assume Signor Verdi to be correct.

Micheal and Jill Tucker, a middle-aged actor couple from California sell their home and on a whim, move to Italy. In the hill town of Spoleto, Umbria, there is an old stone house called Rustico. It has a small hill of olive trees hugging it, orchards, woods and mountains. And it has their name on it. The Tuckers buy the place, pack up their Californian life and become, for all intents and purposes, Italians.

Much like Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence and Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun, this book chronicles one year in the life of the Tuckers and it is engaging to read about their experiences with the weird, wonderful, addictive thing that is rural Italy. Along with them you learn to bake pizzas in a three hundred year old oven, love grappa, slow roast a piglet, fall into the habit of afternoon siestas, break your head over the renovation of the Rustico, make friends with the villagers and a jolly group of ex-patriots and generally endeavour to the good life the Italian way.

Perhaps in matter or form, Living in a Foreign Language does not differ all that much from the other memoirs and travelogues that are out there but Michael Tucker's style of narration makes all the difference. The man simply exudes vigour and zest for good friends, good food and all things Italian. Presiding over every line of his book, the one constant thing that is present from the dedication page to the last is his love for his wife Jill and it is a beautiful thing to behold. Not fictional, not dramatic but something very real existing about two very ordinary people. Many people have moved to Italy or France or some other equally fantastic part of Europe and have written about their experiences, but for me, there is something about Michael Tucker's book that draws me in and makes me read it over and over again. Mine is a well-thumbed copy. This man is so non-condescending, excited and thankful for his experiences and all of it has translated so well on to the pages. I sincerely believe that more than Peter Mayle's more famous book, this one has that spark, that X factor that makes travelogues and memoirs so enjoyable.

Do read the book, you will make two wonderful friends, Michael and Jill and take away a piece of that beautiful country with you.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë

"Reader, I married him." Has love ever been expressed better? Seldom do I come across lines that are so satisfying in any book that I read. Having begun at the end, I nevertheless feel that this line in the last chapter of Charlotte Brontë's masterpiece is an embodiment of everything her irrepressible heroine has stood for since the moment she came into being. Jane Eyre is so universally beloved that I shall not presume to write a review. There is no need: I love it and I shall only gush so let this be a note in tribute to a timeless classic.

When I first read Jane Eyre, the storyline in some way was already familiar; there is an old Tamil classic with a mostly similar plot in glorious technicolor. But the book of course was something else and the experience: part gothic, part warming-my-heart, part chuckles, part horror was pure Brontë. While the other sister wrote the much despaired-for Cathy Linton, Charlotte Brontë's Jane is a young woman of such wit, inherent charm and good sense and is so self-deprecating that it is almost a relief to read about her. From chapter one, when you see her tackling the hateful Mrs. Reed and through the consequent chapters at the Lowood School, with Mr.Rochester, with the Rivers, you are Team Jane. All the other characters complement the plot beautifully. Among everybody, the two principal men in Jane's life deserve special mention: Mr.Rochester and St.John Rivers are both as different as can be; one has made mistakes galore, lives with a terrible secret but knows to love with a passion that breaks and excites your heart at the same time. The other has set a path for himself and deviate he will not, no matter what the temptation. His intentions are noble but the recesses of his heart are stone cold; he has no place in it for anyone but the Lord nor anything but service to the poor. You can't help loving Mr.Rochester while somewhat vaguely fearing St.John.

Charlotte Brontë has written not just a novel; much like the wonderful writers of her times, she has dreamt up Jane's character and fed it life and blood to make it as human as possible and then she has spun her life's story and she has chronicled it. So real is the plot and so real are the characters. Whether you are Lowood, at Thornfield or with the Rivers, every character you come across excites strong emotions like love, hate or pity or even apathy. Only after reading the Brontë sisters did I realise that apathy for a character can also be a strong emotion. So for those of you who have read Jane Eyre, aren't you glad you did? And for those of you who haven't, hurry! Please meet Mr.Rochester along with Jane and fall in love with him too. Through all the joy, much drama and some heartache, you will have a wonderful time.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Kals, Priya and Sathej have given me two awesome awards. One is the Honest Scrap Award and the other is the Beautiful Blogger award. To accept the Honest Scrap award, I need to list ten facts about myself and pass this on to ten other bloggers, so here goes:

1. I am addicted to books
2. I am addicted to the movie Speed but my favourite movie is actually The Sound of Music
3. I love love love coffee mugs. I am ferociously protective of my AC Milan mug
4. I love to cook and I love anything with blueberries in it
5. My favourite ever book is L.M Alcott's Little Women
6. The only genre I avoid is horror. Can't take 'em
7. I need at least three cups of green tea a day
8. I can't live in a house that doesn't have dogs
9. I name all my stuff toys
10. This is actually harder than I thought it would be

Ah. Now, I pass both these awards to some bloggers whose blogs I absolutely love to read:

8.Bookish in a Box
9.Mrs. B

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Italian Matchmaker - Santa Montefiore

"Do you believe in love after death?" Asks the cover of Santa Montefiore's The Italian Matchmaker and whether you are a believer or a skeptic, the magic of Incantellaria will weave itself around you to make you believe. Santa Montefiore has got that special thing which takes her readers right inside the pages of the book and if possible, get you so involved that you can feel the pulse of the book, how she must have felt while writing it. You can almost feel and smell the wet ink. I have only read two of Montefiore's books: The Italian Matchmaker and The Sea of Lost Love and both left my quench for romance completely satisfied. Her books will satiate even the most die hard of romantics.

The Italian Matchmaker revolves around Luca, an English Italian who sensationally quits The City and over night turns from one of London's most profilic bankers to a forty-something, divorced father of two ,who doesn't quite know where his life went. He decides to hie himself off to the sleepy little village of Incantellaria on Italy's Amalfi coast where his parents have recently bought and renovated an old palace, for some reflection and self-study. When he arrives at the village, he sees on the beach, a young woman and a little boy who instantly tug at his heart; consequently he sees them in and around Incantellaria and unable to get them out of his head, he sets about trying to befriend them. If only it were so simple; Incantellaria hides a few secrets and Luca's parents' Palazzo Montelimone is right in the thick of it. Darting, weaving and dancing in and around the town's morbid and fascinating past is the family of the woman Luca saw on the beach. Who are they all? What are their lives about? Most importantly who is this woman with the sad eyes and the solemn little boy who is with her all the time?

You might form some impressions of the ending while reading the book and they may or may not be true; but this doesn't spoil the pleasure of reading The Italian Matchmaker. This book is first and last about the beauty of life and of love. Both have been celebrated tremendously in a delicious plot, well-fleshed out characters and a setting so mesmerizing that it is all you can do not to catch the next flight to Italy. Whatever minor glitches or complaints the readers may have, they pale beneath the beauty of the book. The Italian Matchmaker is a beautiful, beautiful read. The villagers say that once you come to Incantellaria, it is hard to leave; it is the same thing with Montefiore's books: you can't put them down.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Rabbit, Run - John Updike

Run Rabbit, run. If I were to meet Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom in the street I would give him a black eye but the way things are, well, I can't stop reading about him. Of all the protagonists I have loved to hate I haven't hated anyone more than Harry Angstrom and therein lies John Updike's genius. He has created such a fantastic world of self-indulgence and you find yourself recognizing bits and pieces of your own world in the book.

At twenty six, Rabbit is caught in the throes of "mid-life" crisis with a meager job selling kitchen gadgets, an alcoholic wife and a second-rate existence. And Rabbit, the high school basketball star, who knows what being first-rate is like, cannot do second-rate. One evening his claustrophobic life finally propels him to abandon his pregnant wife and just flee with his car. What follows are the next five months of Harry's life and the events that unfold as a result of his extremely bad choices. Rabbit's life seems to be on some sort of constant overload and from the beginning, one wonders if Rabbit himself knows who or what he is running from. Rabbit's relationship with his wife, his sometimes loving, sometimes aloof relationship with his son, his affair with Ruth, a part-time hooker whom he meets through his old basketball coach when he leaves his wife and eventually abandons, his friendship with the Reverend Eccles, his parents, his in-laws all suggest that he shows a degree of selfishness that shock the senses.

Rabbit perhaps lives the so-called "ordinary" life of a straying man who abandons his family only to come crawling back and then leave again, but it is the getting inside his head that makes Rabbit Angstrom so fascinating and John Updike has presented the inside of Rabbit's head with crystal clear clarity. Rabbit, Run or any of its sequels for that matter do not seem to guarantee a happy ending, in fact they don't seem to guarantee a happy anything, but if you give this book a shot and stick with it till the end, you will come away having made reluctant friends with a man intensely dislikeable and you will want to go on reading about his life. So Rabbit runs, run with him.