A Suitable Boy … a review

I’d heard so much about this book for a long time. But I’d never come across it. Last year, however, it was being talked about a lot when the BBC drama was released. Eventually, I got round to reading it. At 1544 pages, it is one of the longest books I’ve read, and it took me well over 2 months to finish it.

Set in 1950s newly independent India, this novel by Vikram Seth centres around young Lata, and her mother’s ambition to find her a suitable boy to marry. Longer novels tend to begin slow, as there is a lot of time to set situations up. Not so with this book. Seth uses the first 200 pages to introduce the reader to a raft of characters – Lata’s family, their extended relations, and all of her suitors and their families too. The result is a complex and intricate set of lives in the towns of Brahmpur, Cawnpore, Calcutta and others. Normally, I find such books hard to read, but this one draws the reader in with its wonderful detailing of events, places and things.

There was one overarching concept that bothered me. I found it difficult to stomach how ‘modern-day’ the behaviours of the women were. My grandmother grew up in the most progressive state of India in the 1950s. And in those days, young unmarried women could not dream of travelling 1500km by train alone, going on boat rides with boys, and walking back home after ‘tawaiaff’ performances alone. All this and more in Lata’s life, and that too in the most regressive and conservative region of India. One could argue that it is because her father is dead, and she is free from familial patriarchy. But she has her grandfather, brother-in-law etc in the same town. So that level of freedom is just made up.

Apart from this, the book is wonderfully written and the story told beautifully. Jane Austen could have learnt a million lessons from Rupa Mehra before she wrote her Mrs Bennett, but I’ll let that slide for now. Anyway, I’d recommend this book as a lingering long lockdown read. Enjoy!

A Life Apart … a review

I had really enjoyed reading Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and so I turned to this book. I have been a long-time subscriber of my library’s digital subscription, but it had been years since I used it. And so, this book broke that chain.

A Life Apart is the story of a young Bengali man Ritwik, who travels from Calcutta to England to study at Oxford University. Ritwik is from a humble background, and this is the 60s, so the chasm between his life in India and life in England is huge. A parallel storyline is one set in early 1900s, that of Miss Gilby, who’s an Englishwoman in British Calcutta. Ritwik is writing her story, so she’s actually a book within a book, which was very interesting. Mukherjee has picked up Miss Gilby from a small character in a Tagore novel, and drawn it out through Ritwik’s pen.

This is definitely a debut novel. It doesn’t have the smoothness of writing of Mukherjee’s later novel, or the tautness of structure. However, it is an enduring debut, with character-driven storytelling. Perhaps this would be very impressive if this is the first of his books you read. I enjoyed the complexities of Ritwik’s life, his strugges with his identity and Miss Gilby’s adventures. A fine read.

Yellow Crocus … a review

I picked up this book coincidentally at the same time as the BLM protests kicked off worldwide. Just as well, it added to my quest of trying to understand the black experience more deeply. This book is about the bond between a white girl, and her black nanny. Being brought up in a privileged land and slave-owning family in 1800s Virginia, Lisbeth is unduly attached to her nurse Mattie.

The family of slaves lives on their estate and so Lisbeth has the opportunity to interact with them quite closely. Over time the girl begins to see that these people are not so different to her after all. And they have the same hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations for themselves and their family. What I thought interesting was that the author herself is white, but she does portray the life of black slaves very well. Perhaps this is because she is part of a non-visible minority as well. Through her own personal experiences, she can channel the discrimination faced regularly by those perceived by the majority as ‘the other.’

As Lisbeth approaches her late teens and is encouraged to make herself attractive to a potential suitor, her own moral compass comes in the way of her decision. What will Lisbeth do? Will Mattie ever find the freedom she seeks for her family? What will happen a result of the Abolishionist movement? A fine book, not too hard going, and a toe-dipping exercise into understanding the contibution of slaves to the building of the so-called greatest nation in the world.

5 Books about the Black Experience

As I have said before, I find literature, particularly fiction, the most natural way of understanding the human experience. A number of people have reached out to me for suggestions on reading black authors, black books – so here’s a little pile that will take you comfortably through summer. This is in no particular order.

1. Gone With the Wind

A timeless classic, this book lays bare truly and honestly, the black peoples’ contribution to building the USA. There are many ways of approaching this book and picking apart its depiction of slavery. But I think it is a seminal read to see the relationships of slave owners and their slaves, the extent of reach civil war, and the motivations of people on both sides. It also shows how changing laws is the beginning of change, not the end. I would say if you can’t be bothered, watch the movie, but at 4.5 hrs runtime that’s no mean feat either!


2. The Color Purple

I had to read this novel for my degree, and that certainly took some pleasure out of it for me. But regardless, this Pulitzer prize winning book is fine literature. What is particularly devastating about this book is the amount of abuse it doesn’t shy away from depicting. A pregnant black woman is probably bottom of this world’s foodchain in some ways, and even if you ignore the colour of her skin, she gets trampled upon for her gender. This book made me come to terms with the fact that I will never truly grok the experience, and made me uniquely aware of my privilege.

3. Praise Song for the Butterflies

This is a shorter book, almost a novella, and what a fantastic book. This is a fictional story based on real life inspirations. If you have been feeling overwhelmed by the protests and would like to start easy, this would be your best best. The author’s style is lighter on the psyche, although continuing to deal with the hefty weight of its content. A young protagonist always provides some sense of hope, and eventual redemption.


4. The Secret Life of Bees

I am always surprised that this book is not better known. Set in Carolina, this is the story of a white girl, her black nanny, and their combined fight against the world. This book is more centered around interpersonal relationships than the wider experience. This makes it enlightening, because the author sees the differences in race through the eyes of the protagonist. This book does have a happy ending, so perhaps one for these tough times!


5. The Bluest Eye

This book depressed me when I read it. It genuinely brought me down because of the utter helplessness of its characters. I think it also comes closest to the ‘Indian – experience’, of young girls and women wishing for fairer skins. This book is the only thing you need to read to understand why Toni Morrison won the Nobel and why the Obama couple regard her so highly. Read at your own peril, it’s gut-wrenching.



I like reading topical books. And so I have borrowed ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. I didn’t include it on the list because it is autobiographical. But A recommended it highly when he read it a few years ago and so I am sure I will enjoy it.

Remember to keep educating yourselves, and support black authors where you can.

Wolf Hall … a review

Hilary Mantel’s last book in this trilogy is out this year.  And this book was given to me as a present and been on my TBR for a while. I thought I would use the lockdown to indulge in some high-brow reading. But what can I say – this Man Booker winning novelist is not for me.

The writing is absolutely rubbish. The characters – and there are about 20 who are all called Thomas – are all over the place. The start of the book is incoherent and did not draw me in. But of course, I persevered because this is such a famous historical book. I was not going to give up until I had read half of the book. Alas, it was a waste of my time. I have very little good to say about this book, as you can probably tell by now.

Have you read it? Let me know if you enjoyed it and what about it did you enjoy? If you haven’t read it – I would suggest you steer clear.

My Kind of Girl … a review

This was another book offered for free at Archipelago Books, what a great selection. Of course, I have heard of Basu, he is very prolific and famous in Bengal. But I have never come across a suitable translation before. This book is a montage of five stories about love. Five gentlemen have to spend the night in a train station waiting room in 1940s India and start talking about the women they have loved in the past.

So the stories are all woven by a common thread, but are each man’s reflections. They are all set in the 1920s British India, and the women are all very much a product of their times. Some of the love stories are unrequited, but not all, which makes the variety unpredictable. The translation is absolutely sublime, I was particularly impressed as love stories can be harder than most to translate due to the nuances of emotion.

I would recommend this book. Its a brief read, and perfect for a solitary lockdown evening, when you might be tempted to watch something online. But I’d counsel this read instead, perhaps with a cup of something warm for company.

7 Days 7 Books

I was ‘nominated’ to do the 7 days 7 books challenge on Facebook by a reader friend. And this is the sort of thing I like, because it forces me to revisit books and my feelings for them. I thought I’ll do books set in ‘unusual locations.’ I’ve been trying to read fiction from regions less known about for the last few years. And so here were my 7

7 days 7 books

I tried to pick books from far flung regions – ones that those in my circle may not have come across. Unfortunately, I didn’t do anything compelling from Africa or Middle East (or even Australia/NZ) but I had to pick 7. I also wanted to include female authors so that helped me hone this down as well.

In no particular order, these were Jamilia, The Hungry Tide, A Dream in Polar Fog, Zlata’s Diary, Island on the Edge, Papillon, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society.

What books would you have picked? Feel free to recommend some that I may not have read!

The Librarian of Auschwitz … a review

It’s Day 10 of social distancing and isolation because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. So of course, I have turned to books. Literature to me is not only a means of escape, but also a way in which I absorb and process things. I find reading extremely relaxing. However, having said that, a Holocaust book is perhaps not the most obvious of choices to pick up at a time like this.

I’d been wishing to read this copy I picked up for a while now. And I somewhat enjoyed it. The story is based on the true account of Dita Kraus – a Czech Jew who, along with her family, spent most of the Second World War in various concentration camps. She was a fiesty, spirited teenager, and ended up being the book ‘keeper’ of her block, hiding her treasure from the Germans, and using books as a means to learn and to escape.

The novel is a good read, but I felt that it was a hard one. There was something in the storytelling that made it a bit stilted. Of course, I haven’t read anything else by the author, Antonio Iturbe. So I find it hard to compare. But it took me a long time to get to the halfway point. The second half of the book is more exciting, the characters had grown on me and as a reader, I felt invested in their stories. This is not just another Holocaust book, because the weight of true experiences is heavy. Overall, I would recommend it for its honesty and its ability to shine a light on the indomitable human spirit. A good read in these trying times, hope you are all safe wherever you are…

Sapiens … a review

This book was all the rage a few years ago. I don’t think it was instantly famous when it came out, it is not that sort of a book. But I believe, a few famous people read it and were blown away by it, and the book picked up steam. The first five pages in, and you can see why…

Harari has a ‘neat’ and ‘orderly’ style of writing, it is focused and does not digress. That lends itself rather well when you are attempting to compress together thousands of years of the history of humankind. Ambitious, to say the least. But while a non-fiction book on such a theme may quickly become dense or onerous, this one doesn’t. The information is presented through a series of scenarios, and all possibilities within reason are considered. The book weaves in and out of speculation and fact, and is thrilling in a way because it seeks to tell us who we are, where we came from. And one could argue, it is the only way for us to evaluate where we want to go. It covers a range of topics, history, geography, archaeology, and even anthropology and sociology.

I will be looking forward to head the sequel. But I must take a break first, while this is an easy read based on the topic. It is still not exactly a summer holiday read, and leaves the reader with a lot to ruminate over. So I feel like my mind needs a bit of a disengage period before I reach out for the next one.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society … a review

I received this book as an early Christmas present from a friend. And because I am impatient with books and I also want to watch the movie, I’ve even finished reading it before Christmas! What an enjoyable read. This story is set on the tiny island of Guernsey in the English Channel in the mid-1940s. After the end of World War II, the German occupation of Guernsey ended and our book’s protagonist Juliet Ashton is touring the UK promoting her book.

Out of the blue, she receives a letter from an unknown man called Dawsey Adams from Guernsey. One thing leads to another, and instead of ‘settling down’ with her suitor Reynolds, which she never intended to do anyway, Ashton ends up researching her next book about the Occupation of Guernsey. Not least to do with the fact that she is intrigued by the name of the society that Adams is a part of ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’.

This is a beautifully written book, based on letters that the characters write to one another. The backdrop of war is very prominent, but because of the time it is set in, the war isn’t central, which I liked. Overall, it is light-hearted in its approach to the life of the characters and has a heart-warming ending. Not that that’s what I go for at Christmastime, but I did enjoy it. Now to get the popcorn and watch the movie!