Snowglobe by Amy Wilson

Snowglobe

Snowglobe by Amy Wilson

Published by: Macmillan Children’s Books (Pan Macmillan)

Fiction: Middle Grade, 256p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

When daydreamer Clementine discovers a mysterious house standing in the middle of town that was never there before, she is pulled towards it by the powerful sense of a mother she never knew. The place is full of snowglobes, swirling with stars and snow and each containing a trapped magician, watched over by Gan, the bitter keeper of the house. One of these is Dylan, a boy who teases her in the real world but who is now desperate for her help.

So Clem ventures into the snowglobes, rescuing Dylan and discovering her own powerful connection to the magic of these thousand worlds. Vowing to release the magicians from the control of their enchantments, Clem unknowingly unleashes a struggle for power that will not only put her family, but the future of magic itself in danger.

About the author:

Amy Wilson is a graduate of the Bath Spa MA in Creative Writing and is the author of the critically acclaimed novels: A Girl Called Owl nominated for the CILIP Carnegie medal, and A Far Away Magic.

*My review:

*I received an Uncorrected Proof Copy of this book from Pan Macmillan India in exchange for an honest review.

The central character of Amy Wilson’s Snowglobe is Clementine, a social misfit in school who is bullied because she is ‘different’ and who readers know have a magical quality about her. We see faint glimpses of Clementine’s magical gift, which she is yet to discover while she tries to hold on to her absent minded father and being a loner at school. Things change when she spies a strange house in town, one she’s never seen earlier. She enters it and finds snow globes hanging around and soon realizes that they have trapped people who have magical powers. Also trapped is Dylan who has never stood up for her in school.

Clementine’s back story of trying to find the whereabouts of her mother who is connected to the world of magic is interspersed with the emotional arc of a desperate need to know why her mother left when she was small. Her mother’s diary gives Clementine an introduction to her mother’s world but it is only when she tries to rescue Dylan from the snowglobe that he’s trapped in that she discovers things about herself and the world of her mother.

Clementine finds out that her two aunts have trapped people with magical powers, including her mother in the fear that magic can bring about chaos. In the world outside the strange home, Clementine must try and reach out to Dylan who is yet to take a stand for her, to work on his fears. Clementine’s character growth from someone who is angsty about being a misfit to one who tries to reach out to people; her attempts at reaching out to her father and slowly how she sees that there are people who can be kind to her and then finally, her wisdom in accepting who she is and how her family is, is a beautiful transition.

I was truly fascinated by the imagery of different snowglobes as prisons that had different elements: from icy cold to warm breeze and autumn air. The writing is fast paced and there is just the emotional quotient with themes around friendship, standing up for people, acts of kindness and loyalty that keeps readers invested. More than magical powers being used to drive the story further, it is more of forging bonds, uniting against odds, facing one’s fears that are given more importance.

I have an honest confession to make here: I had no idea I would love this book as much as I did! I will definitely recommend this book for people who love Middle grade fiction with just a dash of magic realism.

 

The Bag: A Novel by Arup Kumar Dutta

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The Bag: A Novel by Arup Kumar Dutta

Published by: Olive Turtle (An imprint of Niyogi Books)

Fiction, 290p

Rating: 3.75/5 stars

Book summary:

The book zooms in on one-of-the-all too many poignant mini-dramas that are played out in the conflict zones of North-East India, where no one ‘wins’. Senior Police Inspector Lahiri, with his pastiche dispassion and pretend cynicism, the dreaded United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) insurgent Hiren Bora, and his 12-year-old brother Okon—each of them is a victim of circumstances not quite of their own making, portrayed with startling realism. The novel probes the psyche of a morally righteous village youth with strong ideals and big dreams, compassionately delineates his transformation into a militant, and explores into the complexity of the relationship that exists between him and his adolescent younger brother—all the while positioning them within their immediate cultural and physical landscapes. The tale unfolds at a lethargic pace, though occasionally punctuated with short yet furious bursts of violent action, leading inexorably to a dramatic climax. In the process, the reader is subjected to an overwhelming gamut of experiences and emotions, often brutal and inevitably tragic.

My review:

Arup Kumar Dutta’s ‘The Bag’ is a cleverly crafted book that follows the socio political spectrum of Assam through the lives of Hiren Bora and his younger step-brother Okon. The story starts with Senior Inspector Lahiri of the Special Intelligence Branch of the Assam Police Department being called to an all important high level meeting to assess the security situation of Assam. The meeting, which sees heads of various security and intelligence agencies take part, not only acts as the prologue to the book but also introduces readers to a brief history of political strife and the resulting violence over the years in Assam: the co opting of illegal migrants by political parties to set up vote banks, the disillusionment of youths and growing corruption leading to student activism and then taking to arms followed by measures taken by the Army and the government to reign in a growing movement.

The narrative shifts back and forth between Hiren, Inspector Lahiri and soon to be 14 year old Okon who looks up to his older step brother. Hiren’s story represents the multitude of youths in Assam at one point of time who took to arms as a last resort while Inspector Lahiri’s opinions and experiences look at the political response to the situation in Assam while also looking at the muddled up and mostly ineffective measures that the Government as well as security agencies take to contain insurgency.

Okon’s story is the most poignant and looks at how the powerless common man is caught between power centers: a quiet boy who takes delight in reading, he begins to stammer acutely once his brother leaves home to join the militant group. Hiren’s journey takes him from a small village as a promising youth to one who becomes despondent when he cannot get a job. When he goes to the city (Guwahati) to eke a living, he finds himself out of place in a world that is uncaring and soon, circumstances take him to a point where he is recruited as a cadre of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). The narrative on Inspector Lahiri is a no holds barred look at the way one arm of the establishment tries to be one up on the other and in so, doing makes a mess of things. His character is that of one who knows exactly which situation has come about and what factors have led to it but all too helpless and without the power to make things change at all. I couldn’t help seeing Lahiri’s character as a fictional rendition of the author who is a seasoned journalist and who knows Assam’s socio political fabric all too well.

Given the backdrop of the story and the context, there’s no way that the story of ‘TheBag’ could have ended in any way other than the violent climax that leaves Okon more scarred than ever. The lack of any woman’s voice is a sore point for that would have enriched the narrative besides adding some interesting layers to the narrative.

About the author:

Arup Kumar Dutta is an Indian writer and journalist based in Guwahati in Assam. Author of 16 books for adults and 17 adventure novels for young people, he has been awarded various literary prizes. He has been awarded the civilian award Padma Shri by Government of India in 2018.

 

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

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Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Published by: Vintage Books

Fiction

Rating: 3.75/5 stars

Book summary:

The world of Patricia Highsmith has always been filled with ordinary people, all of whom are capable of very ordinary crimes. This theme was present from the beginning, when her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, galvanized the reading public. Here we encounter Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, passengers on the same train. But while Guy is a successful architect in the midst of a divorce, Bruno turns out to be a sadistic psychopath who manipulates Guy into swapping murders with him. “Some people are better off dead,” Bruno remarks, “like your wife and my father, for instance.” As Bruno carries out his twisted plan, Guy is trapped in Highsmith’s perilous world, where, under the right circumstances, anybody is capable of murder.

The inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1951 film, Strangers on a Train launched Highsmith on a prolific career of noir fiction, proving her a master at depicting the unsettling forces that tremble beneath the surface of everyday contemporary life.

My review:
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith is quite the book. Written in 1951, it was adapted into a film of the same name by none other than the master of films, Alfred Hitchcock. The book follows a co-incidental meeting of two men travelling in a train: Guy Haines, a successful architect in the midst of a divorce and Charles Anthony Bruno, a rich man with certain issues with his father.

The conversation takes a strange turn when Bruno propositions that they ‘swap murders’ to do away with the people in their paths: his father (to be killed by Guy) and Guy’s wife (to be killed by Bruno). Guy dismisses the proposition but finds himself wondering about Bruno’s suggestion. What follows thereafter is an edgy and dark psychological play of emotions and though processes for Guy. He goes about his ‘normal life’ : that of throwing himself into planning a new life with a woman he loves, trying to end process his divorce but all the while, he lives every moment with a nagging sense of dread. This gives in to fear and horror when he discovers what Bruno is capable of and finds himself drawn to a journey to uncharted territory.

I wouldn’t like to put in any spoilers but suffice to say this is a book that makes readers want to take a breathe and contemplate things even as the pages need to be turned to see where the story and the characters are headed. I particularly loved the mood that the writing creates: dark and brooding in parts and just plain narrative in others. Suffice to say ‘Strangers on A Train’ is just the book that will make you feel like watching a Hitchcock film. You can almost hear the background music! Read it to see if it works for you.

*Trivia:

The Hitchcock film adaptation deviates from the book though the setting of two strangers who meet on a train and how their conversation turns into a suggestion to ‘swap murders’ remains the same.

 

 

Ballad of Kaziranga by Dileep Chandan; Translated by Parbina Rashid

Kaziranga

Ballad of Kaziranga by Dileep Chandan; Translated by Parbina Rashid

Published by: Niyogi Books

Fiction, Translation 298p

Rating: 3/5 stars

Book summary:

Amal diverts all his focus and time on a new project, hoping to give new meaning to his life. Rishi delves deep into the beauty of Kaziranga, his friend, his muse to get away from a traumatic past. The articles written on the national park feature prominently in Arunabh’s body of work as a reporter.

Ballad of Kaziranga is not a love story (although it does seep in), but rather, the story of love three friends share for the beautiful and majestic Kaziranga, in their own unique way. It is through the lives of these three men and their dreams, aspirations and sometimes, even their frustration and anguish that Kaziranga unfolds itself. A riveting story, it also throws light on the current state of affairs in the national park and the problems plaguing it.

My Review:

Dileep Chandan’s ‘Ballad of Kaziranga’ can only be described as a love song to Kaziranga, which is known the world over for its rhinos. The three main characters: Amal, Rishi and Arunabh as also other supporting characters only serve as windows for the reader into the world that Kaziranga means to each one of them.

The main characters come across as cosmetic and only the character of Forest Officer Hridyananda is the one who stayed with me after reading the book. Hridyananda’s passion for the National Park and its animals, his readings of the encroachers on the park and how nature and man has ravaged the park stands out. The book shines when the narrative focuses on the ties between villagers residing along the park and their relation to the animals and the staff who strive to protect the wildlife. The scenes depicting the fraught world of forest guards who are paid just barely to run their families and who are ill equipped to fight poachers are very real. The world of villagers and their understanding of the animals with which they live in close vicinity, including having to bear the brunt of animals on the rampage stand out.

‘Ballad of Kaziranga’ rests on the frail outline of three friends who are set on opening a tourist resort adjoining the World Heritage Site. It could well have been a very engaging and a thrilling read if there was more to the plot. Rather, too much of background information and statistics on Kaziranga being spouted by the characters in the book make it come across as uneven and patchy. Many parts of the book read like a non-fiction piece on the Kaziranga and though they were informative, it jarred in a fiction narrative.

The book could have worked with some more attention to the proof reading: there are a few typos and a word mistake. Some more editing to trim unnecessary background information (while introducing a character who is a postman, there is a whole section of the Assam Postal Service) could have made ‘Ballad of Kaziranga’ more appealing to the reader. A glossary or end annotations would have helped readers understand the Assamese terms.

You can get more details of the book here

About the author and the translator:

Dileep Chandan is a senior journalist working in Assam for the last 30 years. He is also a popular novelist and writer in Assamese language with some 18 books on various facets of society and North-East India to his credit.

Parbina Rashid is working with The Tribune and is based in Chandigarh. She has translated and compiled a book, Echoes from the Valley, which is an anthology of short stories by 11 Assamese writers.

 

Poonachi: Or The Story of A Black Goat by Perumal Murugan (Translated by N. Kalyan Raman)

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Poonachi: Or The Story of A Black Goat by Perumal Murugan (Translated by N. Kalyan Raman)

Published by: Westland Publications

Fiction: Translated Indian Writing

Rating: 5/5 stars

Book summary:

Through a seeming act of providence, an old couple receives a day-old female goat kid as a gift from the cosmos. Thus begins the story of Poonachi, the little orphan goat. As you follow her story from forest to habitation, independence to motherhood, you recognise in its significant moments the depth and magnitude of your own fears and longings, fuelled by the instinct for survival that animates all life. Masterly and nuanced, Perumal Murugan’s tale forces us reflect on our own responses to hierarchy and ownership, selflessness and appetite, love and desire, living and dying.

Poonachi is the story of a goat, one that carries the burden of being different all her life, of a she-goat who survives against the odds. It is equally an expression of solidarity with the animal world and the female condition. The tale is also a commentary on our times, on the choices we make as a society and a nation, and the increasing vulnerability of individuals, particularly writers and artists, who resist when they are pressed to submit.

 

My Review:

Perumal Murugan’s ‘Poonachi: Or The Story of A Black Goat’ starts with a powerful preface: “How long can an untold story rest in deep slumber within the dormant seed? I am fearful of writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods.” This sets the context for what lies ahead for the readers for Poonachi is not just the story of a goat but a deeply allegorical narrative on the social and political order of the day.

The first chapter takes readers to an unnamed village reeling under the vagaries of the rain, which has been scant over the years. We meet an old unnamed man whose is said to belong to the community of Asuras referring to the demonic community in Indian mythology, pointing us to the Dravidian race. Soon Poonachi enters the picture, a small ‘worm’ of a goat kid who is said to be the last in a goat litter of 7! There is mystery, there is a sense of miracle but Poonachi also brings headaches: the matter of feeding her and then registering her existence in the records of a ‘regime’ that the reader knows is rigid, authoritarian and feeds on surveillance and tracking mechanisms (a nod to the Aadhaar drive?)

The narrative for the most part paints the hardships of rural life depicted through the life of the old couple taking care of Poonachi. It is a life that depends on the monsoon and nothing else except maybe talk about getting aid from the ‘regime’. The mention of the regime paints a dark picture and is eerily familiar:

‘It’s dead only when we speak about our problems. When we talk about the regime, its ears are quite sharp.’

Life however hard goes on and Poonachi who grows up under the shadow of impending harm: an eagle swooping on her, no she goats willing to feed her besides other factors. But she survives and observes the world around her unfold with keen eyes: where animals have to breed to fuel the lives of people. There is a sweet interlude when Poonachi meets and falls in love with Poovan but no matter how much love and affection she gets from the old couple, they don’t know about her feelings and she has to mate with an old ram by design and with no emotion, leaving her feel violated. Poonachi becomes a goat-producing machine, talked about her magical ability to produce 7 goat kids and suffering emotional loss when her children are taken away from her. Poonachi’s reunion with Poovan brings a violent aftermath and marks her destiny as well.

For me, the way that Poonachi is etched as a character is every woman who has no agency: one who must only function depending on the moods and whims of people who control her destiny. Poonachi is every woman at the bottom of every social, political and cultural ladder where she has no say in what she wants and believes and who must breathe with fear and the threat of violence. It is the story of every woman who cannot have her own desires but whose life story has been made more of tears and broken dreams. Whew!

About the author:

Perumal Murugan is an acclaimed Tamil author. The English translation of his novel Madhorubhagan, or One Part Woman, by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, won the Sahitya Akademi’s Translation Prize in 2017 but also mired the author in controversy and attacks on his way of writing that calls out castiest practices. Poonachi is the first book by the author after the author declared himself dead. The book has made its way to every literary line up since its publication.

It is on JCB literature Prize shortlist and Longlist for DSC Prize for South Asian Literature

 

 

Vodka and Apple Juice: Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife In Poland by Jay Martin

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Vodka and Apple Juice: Travels of an Undiplomatic Wife In Poland by Jay Martin

Published by: Fremantle Press

Non Fiction: Memoir

Rating: 3.75/5 stars

Book summary:

When Jay’s husband lands a diplomatic job in Warsaw, she jumps at the opportunity to escape her predictable life in Canberra for a three-year adventure in the heart of central Europe.

Jay shelves her corporate wardrobe and throws herself into life as a diplomatic wife. Between glamorous cocktail parties and ambassadorial shenanigans, Jay sets out to get to know quirky, difficult, fascinating Poland, with its impenetrable language and sometimes unfathomable customs. It’s a challenge even for an intrepid traveller with a willing heart. Not to mention a marriage that increasingly doesn’t look as if it will survive its third Polish winter.

*My Review:

*I received a galley from NetGalley in exchange for a review.

Jay Martin’s Vodka and Apple Juice is more than just the author’s account as a diplomat’s non working wife in the Australian Embassy in Warsaw, Poland over a period of three years. While she recounts for us what it means to work in diplomatic circles: the punishing hours, the endless protocol and security snares juxtaposed with social events; there are the perks of getting travel opportunities but bringing with it, the after effects on her marriage brought on by hectic hours of work and the stress that comes with it.

The first chapters come across as light reading as Jay Martin takes us through her running commentary of adjusting to life in Poland and trying to make sense of all things Polish. But this light tone soon changes to one of genuine puzzlement as she tries to comprehend the language and the people that she encounters in her daily life even as she is facing the challenge of trying to fit in to the life of household chores but found wanting by her husband.

Trying to fit in and adapt to a new life in a new culture, Jay Martin takes readers on a whirlwind of social gatherings where she is trying to forge the barest minimum of friendships. This part of the book is the most interesting for we get to know more of the landscape of Poland through Martin’s travels and her interactions in a reading group that gives us a brief introduction to Polish literature and writing as also Polish films. When she discovers Poland’s political history and the pride of an earlier generation over their role and contribution during the Second World War and after, Martin gets prodded to look up her own roots and trace the footsteps of her ancestors.

Filled with amusing insights and anecdotes, Vodka and Apple Juice is an engaging read with its heart in the right place. I loved this book for it is definitely more than a memoir but a slice of the author’s life and the lessons she discovers while complaining, learning, assimilating and finally, understanding a new culture. I will recommend this book for people who love reading about different cultures and who are looking at travelling to Poland anytime soon or in the future.

Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince and the Search for Home by Alison Singh Gee

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Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, a Prince and the Search for Home by Alison Singh Gee

Published by: Speaking Tiger

Non Fiction: Memoir 279p

Rating: 3.75/5 stars

Book summary:

Alison Singh Gee was a glamorous magazine writer with a serious Jimmy Choo habit, a weakness for five star Balinese resorts, and a reputation for dating highly born British men. Then she met Ajay, a charming and unassuming Indian journalist and her world turned upside down. Travelling from her shiny, fast paced life in Hong Kong to Ajay’s village, Mokimpur, just outside Delhi, Alison learned that not all was what it seemed. It turned out that Ajay was a landed prince (of sorts), but his family palace was falling to pieces. Replete with plumbing issues, strange noises and intimidating relatives, her new love’s ramshackle palace was a broken down relic in desperate need of a makeover. And Alison could not help but wonder if she’d be able to soldier on for the sake of the man who just might be her soul mate.

Hailed as ‘Eat, Pray, Love’s down to earth cousin’, Where the Peacocks Sing takes readers on a cross cultural journey from the manicured gardens of Beverly Hills to the bustling streets of Hong Kong and finally, to the rural Indian countryside, as Alison falls in love, comes to terms with her complicated new family and learns the true meaning of home.

*My Review:

*Thank you Speaking Tiger for this review copy!

This is a book that I read in two straight sittings: the tone of the book is extremely chatty even as the mood and ambience is vividly described for the reader to feel that you are present as a side character. ‘Where the Peacocks Sing’ is the real life romance of Alison Singh Gee an American Chinese journalist with a high flying life who falls for Ajay Singh, an Indian journalist. There is romance certainly: the romance of an exciting life rubbing shoulders with the well heeled, the romance of a new country and other discoveries and the romance between the writer and her colleague of sorts who becomes her live in boyfriend and then her husband. Alison’s life of material pursuits and Ajay’s life philosophies that are rooted in Indian culture makes for an interesting juxtaposition and as the narrative proceeds, the reader can only smile when the two strands merge as one.

What worked for me was the honesty that came through in Alison Singh Gee’s writings: there is no holding back about her choice of boyfriends prior to meeting the one who becomes her husband and there is no holding back when it comes to her impressions when she meets the chaos that is India or when she senses a certain aloofness in the way her future mother in law treats her.

Alison Gee’s writing is self deprecating in parts and without that, the book might well have turned out to be a one dimensional look at all things India. The emotional track of Alison’s longing for a home and a stable life and her childhood backstory, the uncertainty and doubts she feels about a life with Ajay and the emotional journey she embarks to finally find a home is what makes ‘Where the Peacocks Sing’ an appealing read. The part where she tries to makes sense of India and her relationships with Ajay’s family members are amusing and there is sense of trepidation and slowly, one rejoices as they forge an emotional bond.

I have read my fair share of books that tell us how foreigners see India and I would say that Alison Singh Gee’s book certainly counts as one that I enjoyed for the way it has captured the colours, the food, the traditions, the smell, the dust and the beauty of India. I would recommend this one for readers who are looking for a fast read but one that will also leave you with some thoughts. You can get a copy of the book here