Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

I read A Spot of Bother by the same author before reading this one, which is arguably the more critically acclaimed of the two. As I mentioned in the other’s review, a friend had recommended this book to me many years ago, but I never got around to reading it. There were many reasons, but chiefly it was because the opening scene is one of a dog murder.

I wouldn’t say I have an appetite for violence in stories – quite the opposite in fact – but I am able to reasonably hold myself together when the casualties are human. The trembling and wavering starts with violence against children and infants, but really gets unbearable when dogs and animals are victims. The helplessness and mute terror do me in. So this book stayed on the shelf, unread, for a long time.

Author: Mark Haddon

Story: Christopher is a 15-year old teenager with Asperger’s. He sees that his neighbour’s dog has been killed with a pitchfork one night, and sets out to investigate. He lives with his father and attends a school for children with special needs.

His investigation into the dog’s murder reveals a lot of hidden secrets in his life, forces him to deal with situations he finds very difficult, and finally sends him on a journey that changes everything.

Writing: The story is told in first-person narrative from Christopher’s point of view. As with all first-person narratives, it is intended to reveal more about the narrator than the scenes they describe. And in that, the writing really shines through.

I have never encountered anyone with autism, let alone with Asperger’s syndrome. Or if I have, I didn’t realise it. For me, the book provided extraordinary insight into the workings of a mind not quite like everyone else’s. I didn’t know that autistic people feel pain when they are overwhelmed. It was quite revelatory and shocking.

Therefore, I found the writing to be exquisite. Surprising, since I didn’t quite like the other book.

Characters: Another thing I learned: just because someone is differently abled doesn’t automatically make them a likeable person. Yes, there needs to be compassion and understanding when dealing with them, but they don’t need to become your best friend. Because I didn’t warm to Christopher. At all.

Nor the others for that matter. Each of the so-called adults in Christopher’s life, barring Siobhan, are selfish and struggling to cope with his condition. The struggle is real, because his eccentricities are difficult to comprehend or to consider. But honestly, none of them are the major sufferer, so can they please just get over themselves? There is very little about triumph of character in this book. Can’t there be a single person who can rise to the occasion and be, well, awesome? Well, in Mark Haddon’s books, the answer is a resounding NO.

Pace: Amazingly well paced. It isn’t an eventful book, but traversing the mind of Christopher is an adventure in itself. Utterly fascinating.

Conclusion: I’m glad I swallowed my inhibitions and read this one. It was eye-opening for me, and will help me become a little more empathetic in my dealings with people. I would say that is a successful outcome, even if I didn’t enjoy the book. Which I absolutely did. The book is amazing: easy to read, intriguing premise, well narrated, and unusual. All excellent ingredients for a book. Good read.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

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Book Review: The Girl on the Train

I hadn’t heard of this book, until the movie came out. There was this whole phase of my life where I stopped reading books, buying books, or reading about books. I was so preoccupied with life that I let go of this intrinsic part of my nature.

As always with movies, I often try to read the book before watching the movie. There are some notable exceptions to this: Stardust [unfortunately] and Game of Thrones [fortunately].

Author: Paula Hawkins

Story: Rachel travels to work on the train every day. Her personal life is in shambles, as her marriage to the perfect man has fallen apart. He has moved on, marrying another woman and having a baby, in her old house, whereas she is slowing spiralling into alcoholism. She gets drunk and experiences black outs, where she does things she can’t remember, and which later come to haunt her.

Rachel’s train passes by her old house every morning, and the train happens to halt there for a few minutes. As a result, she sees the new tenants of a house, a few doors down from her former home. A striking couple, man and wife, in whose lives she becomes invested, as an onlooker.

One day she sees something in their house. The next day, she reads something in the newspaper. And everything unravels.

Writing: The narrative is in first-person, and shuttles between the female characters in this book. It is a master stroke of ingenuity to have done this, because the suspense remains taut with the lack of complete information. Each voice changes dramatically from the alternately self-pitying and self-loathing Rachel, to the self-justifying Anna, and lastly the mentally unstable Megan.

There is very little kindness in the writing, and it didn’t surprise me to find out that Hawkins was a journalist before writing fiction. There is a baldness to the writing that lays out the facts with unrelenting scrutiny of the weaknesses and nastiness of people. It is what it is; deal with it.

Characters: Not a single one of these characters – not the 5 main ones, nor any of the supporting ones – have a shred of likeability. Perhaps Dr. Kamal Abdic isn’t so bad, but even Rachel’s landlady is said to be “overpoweringly and suffocatingly nice”, as though being nice is a terrible thing. Surprisingly, the characters being unlikeable didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. Generally it does. In fact, I have often panned a book because a horrible protagonist wins at everything.

That being said, each character was developed extremely well, with their foibles being exploited to push the narrative forward. Each one does nasty things, and each one struggles with their perception of right and wrong and what is an acceptable wrong. It is a riveting exploration of character.

Pace: I was often tempted to read the end of this book, because I desperately wanted to know what the ending was. The reason was not because the pace was slow – far from it – but because the switching viewpoints and steady unravelling of the story was tantalising good. There is not a single moment of boredom in this book, although a reader might feel other negative emotions, like disgust or shame [for the character].

Conclusion: I didn’t guess the architect of all the misery till well past the middle point, because that is how masterfully Hawkins has written this book. It is brilliant. I am only deducting a star for the number of times I thought: “Oh Rachel!” in utter exasperation. A must-read.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

PS: I posted my rating of this book on Goodreads, and I was amused to see that someone commented on it saying: “Since you like this book, I think you may enjoy mine. Here is the link to buy it!”

Whattodo. Being an author is tough.

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Book Review: God Save the Dork

I read the first part of this trilogy, and although I disliked it, I already had the second book: So here is the review.

Am I surprised that I didn’t like this book either? No. The problem with this book isn’t the writing, it is the protagonist. He is such an awful, weasely, miserable, self-important, useless, scheming, dishonest, deluded, egomanical, miserly, morally bankrupt, scummy so-and-so, it is impossible to root for him at all. He deserves all the punishment, but each time fate swoops in to save his sorry hide. It is infuriating.

Author: Sidin Vadukut

Story: Although he actually made a mess of everything, and should rightly be relegated to the janitorial department, Robin “Einstein” Varghese has managed to get himself promoted, and now sent to London on assignment. There, his streak of incredible luck continues, thankfully without the alcohol-induced blackouts this time.

His goal is to make plenty of money, and continue to be promoted in this horrible morass of the consulting world.

Writing: Again, the book is laid out in diary entries, and it still doesn’t do the protagonist any favours. He is so horribly dishonest and unlikeable, and he constantly paints himself in a good light [or tries to] and comes off looking worse.

Again, the Malayali-ness was funny, and I would have liked to see more parallels drawn with life in Kerala. Those bits were really funny, and somewhat of a saving grace in the book. This book has also evidently benefited from feedback, and has more interest than the first one.

[On a side note: I did read that the author moved to UK, and it is very visible in his writing. Vadukut is a great commentator of what he observes and what he knows. Those parts shine through.]

Characters: Horrible characters, most of them. Right from Varghese, the corrupt Dominic, the embezzling Tom, to the blackmailing computer guy [I’ve forgotten his name]. The only person with the barest modicum of a soul is Jenny the intern. I feel equal parts of pity and disgust for Robin’s girlfriend, Gouri. Seriously babe. WTF.

Pace: The book was more complete this time around, and the pace remained breakneck. Better overall.

Conclusion: Thank God I didn’t buy the third one already.

Rating: ✩✩

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Knowledge is Stress

Ever since I discovered podcasts, I was hooked. Especially to the BBC comedy ones. However, occasionally, I will scroll through the discover option on my podcast app and look for interesting new ones to subscribe to.

Invariably, I will delete most of them after listening to a few episodes. At one point, there were over a 100 subscriptions, and I couldn’t bear to mark any of the content as played without actually listening to it. It was a ridiculous situation, seeing as there weren’t enough hours in the day to listen to so many. So I unsubscribed, in order to preserve a modicum of sanity. [Rabid completionist. I’ve admitted to this before.]

Not so with Caliphate. I listened to one episode and I got sucked right into it.

Caliphate is about ISIS, and is a New York Times podcast series hosted by Rukmini Callimachi. She is something of an expert on the terror group, having studied them for years. What is amazing about her reporting is that she is so unfailingly patient and stoic about the atrocities that she is reporting. The acts largely speak for themselves, and it is almost divinely fair in the various views she reports on. In this day and age of people talking about news with liberal doses of their opinions thrown in, it was refreshing to listen to this series.

My mother asked me several times why I persisted in listening to Caliphate. I am not an ISIS supporter [HA!], nor am I in any way invested in the situation in Syria and Iraq. Refugees are not lining outside the borders of India, and this is certainly not my political rodeo of choice.

I wondered why myself. I have always been somewhat, morbidly some would say, captivated by Islamic horrors. It started way before ISIS. There was the first time I read about FGM, and then I read the Jean Sasson book Princess. There was the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the unspeakable acts they committed on people. I devoured Khaled Hosseini’s depressing AF books. I don’t know why though; it is all just interesting.

Caliphate is not just another ISIS podcast. Rukmini locates a former member of the terror group, who is Pakistani-Canadian, and escaped Syria after he killed two people. He was radicalised, and he talks about how it took place. It was eye-opening to see how someone becomes a terrorist. What goes through their mind. How do they justify these acts to themselves. How much is sacrifice built into their mindset.

It was shocking to say the very least, and none of the horror I was feeling reflected in the journalists’ voices. Then they go to Mosul, and meet a couple of captives. The hypocrisy would be laughable if it weren’t so despicable.

Up to that point, I managed to listen with interest, and yes lots of anger and disgust. But what had me shaken was when she interviewed rescued Yazidi girls. Girls – literally, they were children and young teens – that had been captured for sexual slavery, and their abductors treated their almost daily rapes of them as a spiritual cleansing for the girls.

It is my opinion that everyone should listen to this podcast, because it is impeccably made. It lays open ISIS ideology in incredible detail and precision. But more than anything, listen to the effect of sexual slavery on the victims. It is a powerful revelation.

Book Review: Journey of Souls

My mother wanted this book, mostly to make some sense of the grief she was feeling after losing my father. She had started reading books by Brian Weiss, who talks about multiple lifetimes and incarnations, when this one showed up as a recommendation somewhere. [I think on Amazon.]

I resisted reading this book, mainly because I am somewhat sceptical about books that purport to answer the mysteries of life [or death] after having been taken in by other books like that: Mutant Message Down Under and The Third Eye.

However, I didn’t find too much backlash about Michael Newton when I Googled him, presumably because his chosen area of expertise is, well, impossible to verify.

I read the book finally. Clearly.

Author: Michael Newton

Premise: Death is not the end. The soul lives on and goes on to be part of a spirit world, from whence it came. The lives the soul leads are intended for it to learn lessons.

Writing: I have to admit that, even though the subject is interesting to me, the writing made me want to sleep after every two pages. It was with great difficulty that I read the whole book in one week. Quite an achievement if I do say so myself.

Pace: Well organised chapters, and clear progression from one to the next, help this book a great deal. The subject matter is not light, so any ease that can be built into the narrative should. The pace was quick, and the author moved rapidly between levels, sure-footed.

Conclusion: There is no doubt that the subject is interesting. Riveting almost. Who hasn’t had the thought of what lies beyond the misty veil when confronted with death? I certainly have.

The concept of souls is not new; every religion talks about souls, as it is currency for good [varied depending on the religion in question] behaviour during life. One’s immortal soul is answerable to a higher power for its misdeeds here on terra firma.

Perhaps I have a mental design flaw. I am sure this would be my mother’s take on the matter. I can understand science and logic. This sort of mystical stuff is interesting for me, but I tend to be sceptical. Don’t get me wrong; I do not contest the possibility of it being true. I don’t. Anything is possible. There is much that science cannot explain yet. It may never be able to explain certain things. However, I do mistrust people. Humans are crafty and have unclear motives for confounding and confusing other, more gullible humans. That is the root of my scepticism.

I read the book. It gave me a new framework to consider. However, I hesitate to consider it gospel. Make of that what you will.

Rating: ✩✩✩

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I Finally Watched Nanette

Twitter was abuzz after the release of Nanette, and [curiously] so was Instagram. My Facebook wasn’t, which speaks to the kind of people on there I suppose. So, in the back of my mind somewhere, I had made a mental note: watch Nanette.

And I finally did. Two evenings ago.

I love stand-up comedy, even the bad kind. The only kinds I cannot stomach is the cringey type or the kind where the comedian/comedienne singles out a target from the audience. So, going in, I knew I was going to love Nanette.

To be clear, I don’t care whether the comic is male or female, straight or gay, black or white, Indian or not, and so on. There are several popular comics on the Indian circuit who I think are terrible. There are those that I thought were brilliant before, and suck big time now. There are those who are, in my opinion, chronically unfunny and just appear to be horrible people. So the fact that Hannah Gadsby, the creator of Nanette, was a woman? Didn’t matter. That she was gay? I didn’t know. Or care. I had never seen any of her work, so I had ZERO frame of reference for the show.

Except the rave Twitter reviews from people I know to be feminists. Gotta love the feminists.

I did love Nanette. It was poignant and funny and topical and touching and wonderful on some many levels. But it wasn’t really comedy. And that was fine, except it was touted as comedy. In fact, saying that it is comedy does this magnificent oeuvre a deep injustice. It is more like a TED Talk about humanity and compassion, rather than comedy. Nanette was powerful and beautiful, but it left me in tears.

It was undoubtedly the best thing I have watched in months.

Book Review: The Martian

A good friend had told me, after the movie came out, that the book was a must-read. Of course, my reading list is already unattainable, so what was adding one more to the list right? Humour me.

Anyway, I’ve gotten into the habit of picking up second-hand books, so as not to bankrupt us. I found the movie tie-in edition of this book, with Matt Damon’s face plastered over the cover. I was none too pleased with this, but I did want to read the book. So I bought it anyway.

Author: Andy Weir

Story: Mark Watney is part of the Ares-3 mission to Mars, one of six astronauts of the mission. He is the mechanical engineer and botanist. He is also the funny guy.

The mission is supposed to last for 31 days, but is cut short due to a storm. The team aborts on the sixth day, and they prepare to go back to their main ship. In the kerfuffle caused by the storm, Mark is skewered by an antenna, and blown away by the high speed winds. The rest of the team tries to locate him, but his suit’s bio-monitors show that he is dead. Reluctantly, they are forced to leave.

However, Mark isn’t dead. He wakes up, and realises that he is all alone. On Mars. With no means to contact Earth.

Writing: Another book in diary form, which isn’t my favourite style by any means, but somehow this format works well for the story. The writing is infused with humour and intelligence, and therefore projects a vision of Watney that is immediately likeable.

Side note: I generally don’t do this, but I reckon that Dork was going for the same thing, but failed abysmally in the effort.

Characters: The characters are all likeable, even though they clearly have their personalities and flaws. They fit the moulds of highly intelligent scientists, with a verve for conquering new frontiers. The NASA folk have a few more shades to their characters, where the bureaucratic mindset of thinkers tussles with the risk-taking streak inherent in doers. The book mildly explores these nuances, without allowing the narrative to be distracted from the situation at hand.

Pace: Suspenseful and exciting. Even though there are down-times, they serve as breathers for the excitement of things happening, and things going wrong.

Conclusion: The great thing about this book isn’t the story or the characters, even though these are amazing aspects. In my opinion, the mix of characters is fantastic. Apart from character names, which naturally give insight into their ethnicities and genders, there is no physical description of the characters. [Except, I think, for Vogel, who was described as lumbering, suggesting bigness.] I like that the characters could be black, white, Asian, or a mix of all, for all the relevance it has to the story. True, there is a believability aspect, where not many non-white non-male people get to do these things, but that can be disregarded because it is a novel after all.

Having said that, I loved every aspect of this novel. The human spirit shines through, both on a individual level and at an organisational level, where all people come together to save one life. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩✩

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