Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Thursday Murder Club

The Thursday Murder Club (Thursday Murder Club, #1)

The Thursday Murder Club

  - Richard Osman


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t recall how this book came onto my radar, but I do remember being intrigued by it when I checked it out. I can’t be sure whether it indeed drew inspiration from Agatha Christie (though I suppose all books of the genre must do) but to me, it was highly reminiscent of Miss Marple mysteries – starting from the title, through the setting in a close-knit community, to the elderly residents playing sleuths.

In a luxury retirement village, new arrival Joyce is welcomed into their fold by a group of septuagenarians, who love murder mysteries and meet every Thursday to discuss old unsolved murders and find their possible solutions. Inevitably, they find themselves involved in brand new murders and enthusiastically take it upon themselves to solve them.

The story alternates between the first-person narrative of Joyce (in the form of her diary entries) and a third-person narrative. Joyce’s voice is quite rambling, reflecting her chatty personality that is a little lacking in confidence. Both the styles took some time to get used to. There are some red herrings thrown in, that begin as a promising lead but end with a perfectly benign explanation. For once, not only did I not mind all this meandering in a murder mystery, I even enjoyed the tangential stories to some extent. I liked getting to know the backstories of the characters; the unfruitful trails were done well, and in a way, reflect a real investigation where there may be several false leads before hitting the correct path.

However, my reading experience was marred by an utterly unsatisfying conclusion, that made me feel that the effort of going through the 400 pages was not worth it. Further, in what is the biggest killer (no pun intended!) for a mystery, the false leads are carefully investigated by the group, but in the end, they just “know” the identity of the real murderer.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

I did not find a reasonable explanation for the wait between the causal events and Tony’s murder, and no rational reason for Ian’s. On top of it, the group’s attitude towards the two murderers was conflicting and unjustified. They propose to turn in their elderly friend John, whose wife is in an assisted living facility, to the police and it is implied that he is to take his own life. On the other hand, there is no retribution for Bogdan, who has committed more than one murder – even though only Joyce is confirmed to be aware of his role, it is indicated that Elizabeth will soon discover it.

 Overall, it is a quirky, cozy murder mystery that could have been much more entertaining with a better denouement.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

  - Helene Hanff


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is almost one and a half years since I read ‘84, Charing Cross Road’, the delightful memoir by Helene Hanff. The 20-year old friendship cultivated over a shared love of books comes across beautifully in Helene’s engaging writing interspersed with humor and full of charm in this work. Ever since then, I have wanted to read ‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’, but I wanted to buy the paperback for both the books and kept waiting for the price to come to a reasonable level; in the end, I gave up and went with the kindle version of The Duchess also.


In this book, Helene describes her long-awaited visit to London, a fulfillment of her lifelong dream. The few weeks that she manages to stay there, are full of meeting old friends and making new ones, visits to places with close ties to her literary heroes, and of course, literary events. It must have been a bittersweet experience for her, with Frank Doel gone and Marks and Company, the bookshop where this journey started, closed down. But what comes through in the writing is her unbridled joy in here and now, and the thought that impresses upon you is – here is a woman who knows how to experience life.


Related in a warm, conversational tone, it is full of her own brand of humor, which I found really captivating. I found it even more enchanting than the first book - we experience the city and other places through her eyes, share in her excitement and disappointments and feel the charm of not just her words, but also her personality. It is made richer by her in-person interactions with people, from old and new friends, to editors and readers, to hotel staff and strangers.


I highly recommend both the books!

We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists

-- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although I knew this is a short book, it turned out to be even shorter than I expected. In this brief work, Ms. Adichie has related her views on feminism - what it means to her, and how it is an often misunderstood term. The essay carries a great deal of warmth and is interspersed with engaging personal encounters and experiences.

Now, I completely agree with the thoughts and views that Ms. Adichie has expressed in this book, but I did not feel that it was as groundbreaking a work as it has been cited as. Growing up in a middle-class Indian family, this has been a reality for me for most of my life. And as for the bias that women face at work, it is universal anyway.

Yet, I am glad that she has used her voice, which carries an influence on the global stage, to bring these concerns to the forefront. I do hope, even if it is a thin hope, that at least some people will listen to it with an open mind, understand it and help to move towards a better social balance.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders

  - Anthony Horowitz


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book I was really looking forward to reading and expected to enjoy it, for many reasons. Growing up, I absolutely loved Sherlock Holmes and Poirot stories, and tried (unsuccessfully!) to find the magic recreated in several cozy mysteries. And at last here was a book, that was unabashedly inspired by Agatha Christie. Moreover, I had read ‘The House of Silk’ and ‘Moriarty’ by Anthony Horowitz and enjoyed both, even though in each case I was able to figure out where it was heading.

I liked the concept – a story within a story within a story. The first half of the book – the murder mystery written by an author who is a key character in the book – moves at a good pace. It has a decidedly Christie-like feel to it, with a quaint village setting and a host of suspects, each with a good motive. It is eventually very neatly tied up with a satisfying conclusion. The second half of the book, a murder mystery in the “real time” in the book, did not match up to the fictional storyline. In this thread, it was quite evident who the murder was – there was a hint early on, and midway there was a rather obvious clue. And as with the first one, this also ended with all the loose ends tied and wrapped up. Both the stories are tightly linked, as are the murders - including the point that the murder victims were not likable people and were actually hated by many.

And yet, despite everything that it had going for it, I was left quite underwhelmed. What I disliked most about it was the writing style – it meandered a lot and had too many repetitions. With both the murders – in the fictional and the real timeline, after describing the background of the suspects, the author has Susan creating the list of possible suspects recapturing their behavior that has got them on this list. The suspect list factor works for Holmes and Poirot because the detectives infer something beyond the stated facts; here, it seems that the author did not consider his readers capable of observing something quite obvious from the straightforward facts. Also inserted into the novel are several sections of unnecessary prose – an excerpt from a completely print-unworthy book by Alan Conway, an article by Claire trying to capture the real Alan, Alan’s novel compared against the manuscript by Donald Leigh which Alan was accused of plagiarizing. These were not only boring and redundant, I felt that the author was trying too hard to demonstrate his talent at different styles of writing. Another thing that irks me is what I would call the “premonition” factor, for want of a better word – quite a few times in her narrative Susan tells the readers that things were going to get far worse than she expected at that instant. I do not understand why authors feel this need to artificially jack up the suspense – I would much rather prefer to view the events from the characters’ eyes as they unfold.

On the content side, as I mentioned, the murderer in the second story was trivial to guess – the clues were right there, despite the red herrings. It is quite frustrating when you as a reader figure out who the culprit is, but the protagonist who is investigating the crime remains completely oblivious to it! It may be a deliberate act on the author’s part, but then the impression it creates on me is that the author is showing off. The first mystery was more interesting and suspenseful, and the revelation did come as a surprise, but the conclusion relied more on intuition than reasoning. And last (and as they say, not the least) peeve - I am getting increasingly annoyed with the authors who include a romance in the life of the female protagonist, for apparently the sole purpose of having the love interest rescue the heroine at the climax.

I would have rated it between 2 and 2.5, but added another 0.5 for the concept and the tribute to Christie.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park

  - Rainbow Rowell


My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This gets added into the long list of books that I bought with high expectations (after hearing everyone sing praises about it), but which fell flat for me. The whole world seemed to be raving about this book, and so I had bought it as a gift for my then 11-year old niece. I am thankful for the timely advice of fellow members of my reading group that I didn't give it to her. I then meant to read it myself, but kept putting it off as it seemed that it was a heart breaking novel and in the current situation, I was in no mood for it. In the end, the only thing about it that broke my heart was the money and time I spent on this.

I am not fond of romance as a genre, and this YA romance turned out to be something I should have stayed away from. It didn't give me a sense of the freshness of young love; actually, the romance angle was altogether unrealistic and sprung out of the blue - for the interaction between the lead pair till that point, a close friendship would have been more natural progression in their relationship. I also found the "he is so cute I want to eat his face" kind of statements icky.

It's also not the story it was supposed to be - the journey of two misfits supporting each other, to navigate the craziness that is high school. Park doesn't really have any challenges except his own inferiority complex; for all his purported disappointment with Park, his father is very supportive of him. Eleanor's family situation is definitely something that makes one sympathize with her and her siblings. The ending didn't move me particularly, though I am the type who cry easily through books and movies, because I didn't really connect with the characters. I was more interested to find how will things turn out for eleanor's mother and siblings.

I usually like two person narrative, but here the switching voices mostly annoyed me, as in many places the change kept happening after a paragraph or even a sentence.

I initially rated it 2.5, but as I wrote this review, I realized that neither the story, nor the presentation, and not even the writing style worked for me, so I change my rating to 2.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Keeper of Lost Things

The Keeper of Lost Things

The Keeper of Lost Things

  - Ruth Hogan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is an inherent sense of mystery in finding an unusual object lying in an unexpected place – it prompts one’s mind to wonder who did it belong to, how did it come to be lost where it was, did its loss cause much pain to the owner? Imagine restoring a lost object to its distressed owner and their joy at finding it again, and it feels almost magical. A perpetual sucker for nostalgia that I am, this tale of loss and redemption held a great appeal for me.

I loved the basic concept of this book – where Anthony Peardew casts himself into the role of The Keeper of Lost Things, after losing his most cherished possession. He finds a purpose in life in collecting the objects lost or forgotten or abandoned, hoping to reunite them with their owner, and in the meanwhile, creating poignant stories around them. Near the end of his life, he hands over his house as well as his purpose to his housekeeper-assistant Laura.

In a parallel storyline, a publisher Bomber and his assistant Eunice navigate the life as best of friends. This story spans a long duration, and is related in snippets of significant events, skipping years where presumably nothing of note happened. I loved this story for its nuances, despite having only a marginal link to the main story (though as readers we realize that it will eventually converge towards the central theme).

I found it quite engaging the way the book is structured – alternating between the two story lines, with Anothony’s past revealed in memories, Eunice’s story taking relevant leaps in the time, and the entire narrative interspersed with the intriguing stories about the lost items. It was perhaps these stories that I found the most compelling part of the book. Initially I thought that the stories were the ones imagined by Anthony, though later I concluded, from the stories where the items were restored to the owners, that these were the actual ones.

However, it did not turn out to be a great read that I expected it to be, considering that it was nominated for Goodreads choice award for fiction. I have two major issues with it, that I think prevented it from being the tender, uplifting tale it could have been.

First is the cheesy and unnecessary romance between Laura and Freddy – it really adds nothing to the story except emphasizing the damsel-in-distress syndrome. Imagine the positivity it would have exuded if Laura and Sunshine were each-other’s support system, and started to look forward to their lives without the supporting cast of a male pillar-of-strength.

The another is the supernatural angle, that felt as if the author tried too hard to work up a magical realism thread. I do not mean special ability of Sunshine to feel the emotions from the lost items, which in fact was a nice touch to add. But the theatrics of Theresa’s ghost can be taken out without diminishing the story in any way; rather, it would emphasize the impact of the rest of the things.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache [series]

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache [series]

   - Louise Penny

The novels in the Armand Gamache series are primarily set in a small Canadian village and feature a protagonist who is nearly 50 years old, kind, sociable and settled in a happy marriage. This is a very welcome change from the usual murder mysteries set in UK or US, having a lead character who is bitter and has issues forming relationships, both personal and professional.

This series is as much about the characters as the mysteries, and the arcs capturing the evolution of the story of the primary characters are an important part of the narrative. The most prominent recurring characters have of course been given an appropriate focus in terms of creating their backstory and the ongoing changes in their lives, but the other significant characters in each book are also well developed. The village of The Three Pines, where these stories are based, is a (fictional, of course) tiny village that has somehow evaded being marked on any map. The author has described in such a charming manner that it makes you want to leave where ever you are and move there, despite an unusually high rate of crimes!

I started this series because it featured in some of the lists of best cozy mysteries, and enjoyed high recommendations on Goodreads and my reading group. However, I would call only the first few books as cozy mysteries; as the series progresses, it becomes darker and more gruesome. I understand the challenge of sustaining readers’ interest through a series, without some sort of progression in the story lines of the key characters – I have abandoned quite a few series because the mysteries eventually become tepid, the characters do not change, and all books start appearing same. Which is why one must admire writers like Doyle and Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner, who created an engaging series with very little by way of continuation from story to story in the lives of their fictional characters.

The books in the series are not consistent in the quality of the plots – I really enjoyed some of them, while there were some that I could not like at all. Anyhow, I stopped reading after 12 books, because they were getting too dark for me (and that is not what I was looking for), and somewhat repetitive, and I felt that I have read enough for now and should look at other things. I am not giving up on the possibility of resuming the series, but given that there are so many diverse books on my TBR, I do not think it is likely that I will return to it

 

#1 Still Life

In this first installment, I knew the murderer, and partially the reason, very early in the book. Yet, I enjoyed the unfolding of the drama, and the observations about human nature and interactions.

 

#2 A Fatal Grace

The mystery and the tension in this one was better than the first book in the series. I knew the identity of one of the murderers early on, but kept wavering between two characters for the second one. As before, I liked the quaint village setting, and its lovely inhabitants. The thing that disconcerted me most was fat-shaming of the child, not just by the characters, but by the author herself, which was apparent in the way every time she was described.

 

#3 The Cruelest Month

The mystery in this was better than the previous ones, and the much dreaded Arnot case is explained as well. The too frequent verbose details become a drag though. And it was annoying that throughout the book, change of scenes kept happening within a chapter, without even a little break to indicate this.

 

#4 A Rule Against Murder

I haven’t liked the character of Peter Morrow right from the first book, he is not just vain and shallow, but is also highly insensitive to his wife Clara. This book shows us probably the worst side of his character, and I do wonder why Clara puts up with him at all.

I found the plot of this one very good and suspenseful, though the denouement was somewhat unexpected. Had the end matched the build-up, it would have been a great thriller.

 

#5 The Brutal Telling

This is one of the best books of the series so far. The twists and turns were thrilling, and I have to say, courageous on the author's part. The characters form as much a part of the book as the murder mystery, and the evolution of the characters and their relationships adds much more interest to the story.
I was quite unaware of Canadian history, particularly the natives before it was colonized, and have wondered about it, though did not find out more. So, it was also good to get a little bit of insight from that aspect.

 

#6 Bury Your Dead

This was a disappointment in some sense – it was too cluttered, as the author seemed to be experimenting with several formats all at once.

There are two parallel murder mysteries, one with Gamache in Quebec, and the other with Beauvoir in Three Pines. Both were interesting in themselves, but they had nothing to do with each other. I found the story line with Gamache set in old Quebec City more interesting, for its historical context and the way he solves a 200-year-old mystery.

Flashbacks from past interspersed with the current events is a common device; however, here we have the memories of the same terrible event from the perspective of both Gamache and Beauvoir. It became very confusing as the reader must reconstruct the whole event from bits and pieces through the entire book.

Detailed review: here

 

#7 A Trick of The Light

The mystery and tension here were really good. The aspects of human behavior and relationships play a great role in the story, and the discovery of the murderer. The dynamics of the art world and its underlying brutality were well depicted. I really enjoyed this one.

 

#8 The Beautiful Mystery

This book is set in an isolated monastery in the midst of a deep forest, and we have a little bit of history of this particular monastic order, believed to have died out during the inquisition. A lot of focus is given to the routine of the monks and the Gregorian chants, which became boring after few repetitions.

The explanation of the murder did not match the buildup of the mystery and was rather an anti-climax. The manipulative ways of Francoeur and Gamache’s helplessness to do anything about it were depicted very well, and I truly detested him. It leaves us on a cliffhanger, wondering about his real motive.

Detailed review: here

 

#9 How The Light Gets In

This moves in two parallel story lines - a murder mystery, and the escalating conflict between Gamache and Francoeur. The only common thread between the two is the murder victim's connection with The Three Pines village, but the murder mystery is not the focus in this book. The focus is Gamache's investigation into what Francoeur is really planning for. This is more of a thriller than a mystery, with an end that is a little too theatrical.

The events in this book stretch the credulity of the story arcs of primary characters, reaching a cinematic climax and a happy-ever-after ending. The writing style in this book was jittery. There were several instances of repetitions of the same events or explanations, and a whole bunch of chopped sentences attempting to build up the tension during the climax. I do hope we have a smoother story and style in following books.

Detailed review:here


 #10 The Long Way Home

This is the worst book in the series so far, both in terms of story and the writing style.
The choppy writing style I noticed towards the later part of the previous book (not sure if it wasn't used earlier or I missed it), continues in this book from the beginning.

A large part of the book consisted of everyone viewing Peter's paintings. This is described so many times, that it gets on one's nerves. The chase was okay by me (though not as interesting as a murder mystery), but the entire cause and means and result put together, it was a bit too farfetched.

Detailed review: here


#11 The Nature of the Beast

I have mixed feelings towards this one. On the positive side, it is a great thriller, with an amazing build up of the suspense and tension. It keeps you at the edge until a cinematic kind of climax. As before, I like the way the primary characters in the series keep evolving and the way the important characters in this novel are developed.

On the downside, the basic premise behind the whole story – the incongruous weapon, seems well, incongruous. It may be loosely based on factual events (of which I learnt afterwards), but the impression I gathered while reading it made the entire operation unbelievable, and my doubts persist. Secondly, this was quite gruesome, and I don’t want so much blood and gore and psychopathy (which is the reason why I started reading cozies after all).

Detailed Review: here



#12 A Great Reckoning

This is a taut mystery-thriller, even though a little too disturbing for my taste. While I liked the fast-paced mystery despite my aversion to violence, I am disconcerted by the implausibility in the fundamental structure of the plot.

For all the buildup it was given, I found the auxiliary story line concerning the map not quite relevant to the central plot, even though it had its own elements of interest. A parallel story line with little connection to the main mystery is also becoming a recurring feature in the novels.

The fractured sentences are not so frequent, or I have become used to them and do not notice them as much as in some of the previous books.

Detailed Review: here

 

A Great Reckoning

A Great Reckoning (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #12)

A Great Reckoning

  - Louise Penny


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of the several job offers he had, Gamache has accepted to join as the head of the Surete training academy, with the purpose of rooting out the corruption and cruelty in the force at its base. However, the dynamics of power being complex (and this being a murder mystery) , soon enough a senior officer is murdered. Due to his ingrained quality of honesty and commitment to protect people he is responsible for, Gamache gets more deeply involved than he might have expected.

This is a taut mystery-thriller, even though a little too disturbing for my taste – I find explicit and implicit descriptions of gore and sadism unsettling. While I liked the fast-paced mystery despite my aversion to violence, I am disconcerted by the implausibility in the fundamental structure of the plot, as was also the case in some of the previous books.*

For all the buildup it was given, I found the auxiliary story line concerning the map not quite relevant to the central plot, even though it had its own elements of interest. A parallel story line with little connection and no relevance to the main mystery is also becoming a recurring feature in the novels.

The fractured sentences are not so frequent, or I have become used to them and do not notice them as much as in some of the previous books. 

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* SPOILER ALERT:

How does it happen that in a game of Russian Roulette there is no death over the course of years?

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Thursday Next [series]

 Thursday Next [Series]

  - Jasper Fforde

 

Looking at the blurbs (which appeared too chaotic for my taste) and reviews (which were almost ecstatic), I switched several times on the decision whether to read this series or not. Well, I am glad that I eventually did, and ended up reading four of them in quick succession.

I would never have thought that I would like such a mish-mash of genres – literary thriller, fantasy, and to some extent, science fiction, but I loved it. If I have to describe it in one word (or two), what I would call it is “uniquely imaginative”. The novels are set in an alternate reality, where literature is more precious than jewels and special police departments are dedicated to literary crimes, technology is advanced enough to make cloning a household experiment and resurrect dodos as pets, and time travel is common but strictly regulated activity. One can move back and forth in time, and change the course of [current] reality, or slip sideways into an alternate reality. One can jump into a book and interact with characters, though it is a skill rare few can boast of. One can change a manuscript, and every copy of the book over the world would reflect the change. Entire museums are dedicated to an author, vote lobbies are created by preference to one author over another.

The world building is simply magnificent, of the “real” world, as well as the “book” world. It is teeming with literary references (I identified a number of them, even after possibly missing some), literary puns are scattered liberally, and has a lot of humor and charm. I particularly enjoyed the smaller Easter-egg kind, like why there is a difference in the spelling of words like colour and valour in US, how did Mycroft suddenly appear in Sherlock Holmes stories, enfranchising of King Solomon’s wisdom. It takes sarcasm at the government bureaucracy and the corporate operations and greed to the next level. Time travel and book travel are not novel concepts, but the way the author has used time travel is interesting, and the world he created around book jumping is simply ingenious. There seem to be inconsistencies caused by all the movement across time and place, but frankly, I was having too much fun to crib about it.

The first book – The Eyre Affair – is primarily created around Jane Eyre, and the fact that I haven’t read it did not deter my engagement with the book. I do not intend to read Jane Eyre, but someone who does, should be warned that it contains complete spoilers about the book. The one part I did not like in this one was the rather insipid love affair, even though I understood that it would play a key role in subsequent books.

In the sequel – Lost in a Good Book – the author describes book jumping as almost an art, which not everyone can possess, and anyone who does, must still hone it. The book world is a parallel universe, with its own rules and conventions and problems, and an entity that must govern it and keep the crimes at bay. The heroine, Thursday, develops her book jumping skills, and becomes an apprentice in jurisfiction (the judicial entity in the world of fiction; love the pun!), resulting in crazy adventures in both worlds.

The third book – The Well of Lost Plots – is almost entirely set in the book world, and I particularly liked the concept of a repository of unpublished works, the mechanics of creation of the published works, and the process of dismantling of rejected ones. The way the author has described the creation of generic characters and their shaping up, the incorporation of plot devices and plugging of plot holes is truly creative. However, the primary theme of the book, the conspiracy to take over all fiction writing and reading was over the top even for someone like me, who has been enjoying the crazily colorful worlds.

In the fourth book in the series – Something Rotten – Thursday returns to the more unpredictable, and therefore exciting, real world. But this is where, for me, the series starts to decline. The novelty of the worlds has worn off, and there were not much of new literary puns to enliven it. It was a mad caper of frantic action, jumping all over the place in time and between the two worlds. It progresses in terms of the story line, but does not grow conceptually. I am not giving up on the series yet, but will give it a rest for a while.