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Tag Archives: Book reviews
On a day like any other, young William Bellman boasts that he can hit a rook sitting on a branch a great distance away. His friends aren’t so sure that he can. Determined to prove them wrong, William loosens a stone from his catapult. It finds it mark. The young rook resting on the branch is killed instantly. Though William feels sad at the time, the event is soon forgotten.
The rook is comfortable pretty much anywhere. He goes where he pleases and, when he pleases, he comes back. Laughing…There are numerous collective nouns for rooks. In some parts people say a parliament of rooks.
Life goes on. William grows up into a fine young man. He leads a charmed life – he has a job he loves at his uncle’s mill, a wife and children he adores, his business is thriving and everything he touches turns to gold. But slowly, people around him start to die. And at each funeral he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling nonchalantly at him. Soon, death comes closer to home, claiming his wife and most of his children. Driven to despair, unhinged by grief, William is determined to end his own misery.
Now some great hand had peeled back the kind surface of that fairy-tale world and shown him the chasm beneath his feet.
He stumbles to his wife’s fresh grave, but there, waiting for him, is the mysterious stranger in black, who has a business proposition for him – a mysterious business called Bellman & Black.
As William goes about single-mindedly setting the business up from scratch, he can’t seem to remember the actual deal that he struck with Black. That’s a niggling worry that stays with him, one he cannot fully resolve because the mysterious Black doesn’t show himself again. Who is Black? What is the nature of the agreement they entered into? How much of the profit from this business should he set aside for Black? These are the questions that torment William – questions to which he has no answer until the very end.
Overall, I thought it was an interesting book, but it had its problems.
On the plus side, it is a very well-written book. Setterfield vividly brings Victorian England and the rural country side alive with her prose. Her attention to detail, especially in the running of the mill, is par excellence – though at times it does feel slightly academic and slows the story down somewhat.
The two main protagonists – William and the rook – are dealt with beautifully. William’s character isn’t likable, but he is admirable for his single-minded devotion to his work, his business acumen and his attention to each and every detail that goes into the running of his businesses. Setterfield also includes some interesting mythologies and observations about rooks, and offers readers a whole bunch of superstitions and stories about them through the ages.
Some of the prose is hauntingly beautiful, like this passage that deals with the loss of William’s mother:
His mother was dead: he had seen the body; yet this knowledge refused to find a settled place in his mind. It came and went, surprised him every time he chanced upon it, and there were a million reasons not to believe it. His mother was dead, but look: here were her clothes and here her teacups, here her Sunday hat on the shelf over the coat hook. His mother was dead, but hark: the garden gate! Any moment now she would come through the door.
And, since this is, after all, a ghost story, there’s an air of menace and tension throughout the book. But it isn’t your regular ghost story, because there isn’t really a “haunting”, not in the traditional manner. The haunting is in the message, in the issues that Setterfield tackles – the meaning of life and death, of what’s important and what isn’t, of dealing with love, with loss, with work, with rest. There’s a lot to think about here.
But William resisted solitude as he resisted leisure. On the surface he was all ebullience and activity. Inside, hidden even from himself, he proceeded through life as though he had learned the ground beneath his feet was minced and at any step his footing might give way beneath him.
The biggest problem with the book, though, is that it drags, and it’s a tad boring. All that observation to detail in the day-to-day running of the mill tends to get quite academic; Black doesn’t properly enter the scene until the second part of the story; the key events described in the blurb – the bargain with Black and the creation of Bellman & Black – take place only in the second half of the book, and even then, there isn’t much action. Setterfiled does build up some promising scenarios, when she could have taken the story forward dramatically, but they all just fizzle off.
This is a novel that would probably have done much better as a short story or novella. Overall, it isn’t a terrible book – indeed, it has its moments – but I wouldn’t recommend it to lovers of ghost stories or gothic fiction. Fans of literary fiction could give it a try.
Ashok Ferrey’s The Good Little Ceylonese Girl is a collection of short stories about Sri Lankans living in the country and abroad. This slim 193 page volume has 17 stories, all of them really quite short, presenting readers with little vignettes and fragments of his characters’ lives.
The poignant Dust is the story of Father Cruz and his fight with his parishioners, who want their donations used to beautify the church, whereas all he wants is to use the money to help the needy.
The toungue-in-check Maleeshya is a short account of how the editor of a high-flying society magazine arm twists those desperate for a mention in her magazine to conform to her vision of a marriage and even death.
Pig shows some of the similarities between Indian and Sri Lankan culture. It is the story of two childhood sweethearts Lalitha and Ruwan who grew up together but were married off to different people. They continued to meet clandestinely over the years. But when the time came for them to be able to get back together, Ruwan backed out because he realized, after 19 years of cheating on his wife, that Lalitha and he had changed:
“19 years. For two days every year we have been actor and actress in this well-rehearsed play with this well-known ending; but our real selves have moved on, only a fraction each year maybe, but we’re actually quite far apart now, aren’t we…”
Each story is a masterpiece. Some end quite well. Some leave you wondering what happened next. All of them collectively paint a cohesive picture of a changing Sri Lanka and a diaspora of Sri Lankans living abroad who are still holding on to old values, not realizing how things have changed at home.
Heartily recommend if you like reading South East Asian writers or want a glimpse into a different culture.
Disclaimer: I received the book from the publisher, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.
Life of Pi is the story of Piscine Molitor Patel – known as Pi – a young, bookish boy whose life revolves around the hippos, hyenas, bears and other animals at his father’s zoo in Pondicherry, India. Curious by nature, Pi is deeply influenced by religion, and learns about and embraces three of them – Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. But his idyllic life at the zoo comes to an end when his father decides to pack up and move the family to Canada for a better life. They leave aboard a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum along with many of their animals, who are bound for zoos in the US. A few days into their journey, disaster strikes – their ship, along with most of the animals and the entire Patel family – bar Pi – sink to the depths of the ocean. 16-year old Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra, hyena, orang-utan and a Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Of course, the only animal to survive is Richard Parker, and Pi must share his lifeboat with him and hope for a miraculous rescue.
The book is hailed as a modern day classic, a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe. But sadly, I found it lacking.
I read the book after watching the movie, as I was sure the philosophy and meditation on life would be better conveyed through the written word. However, this was not so. Life of Pi is one of those few books that do much, much better as a movie.
There are aspects of the book that are rather gruesome – especially the portion where the hyena eats the orang-utan. The “message” that Martel aims to convey – faith translates to belief in the improbable; atheism means choosing the story you already know; and agnosticism as a refusal to choose – seems to be lost in translation.
Probably if you can put your expectations aside, you might find it an interesting read, as Martel’s writing style and plot build-up are excellent.
For me though, it was all a bit disappointing.
Disclaimer: I got the book from Random House India, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.
One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis
Is running away ever the answer?
An apparently happy marriage. A beautiful son. A lovely home. So what makes Emily Coleman get up one morning and walk right out of her life to start all over again? Has she had a breakdown? Was it to escape her dysfunctional family – especially her flawed twin sister Caroline who always seemed to hate her? And what is the date that looms, threatening to force her to confront her past? No-one has ever guessed her secret. Will you?
This was an excellent, compelling read. What would force you to plan your escape from your life – from your husband…your soulmate…and your lovely boy Charlie? What would make you put a stone on your heart every time you think about them in your new life? And how would you cope with the pain, the loss, the deception? In this searingly beautiful novel, with twists you’d never see coming, Seskis sets a crackling pace, with characters you’ll love and others you’ll hate. Kirkus Reviews calls it
The book EVERYONE’S going to be talking about this summer. “Recommended.”
And I couldn’t agree more. If you read just one book this summer, this should be it! The book is out now on Amazon!
The Bleiberg Project by David Khara, Simon John (translator)
Self-pitying golden boy trader Jay Novacek is having a bad week. He finds out his long-lost father is dead, he discovers his boss’s real identity, and he ends up boarding a plane to Zurich under his real name Jeremy Corbin. He has a Nazi medallion in his pocket, a hot CIA body guard next to him, and a clearly dangerous Mossad agent on his tail. What was his father investigating? Why was his mother assassinated? Why are unknown sides fighting over him with automatic weapons? Far from his posh NY apartment, he races to save the world from a horrific conspiracy straight out of the darkest hours of history. Can it be stopped? This fast-paced thriller was an instant sensation in France. Think a dash of Robin Cook, a splash of John Grisham, and pinch of Clive Cussler with a very distinctive flavor all its own.
If you’re a fan of fast paced thrillers, be prepared to stay up all night as David takes you on a rip-roaring ride! The novel is based on the premise that Hitler’s doctors succeeded in creating an Aryan superman – a killer – who is still alive, as is the doctor who was responsible for the genetic mutation. David builds up the suspense by flashing between different time periods – from Nazi camps to present day action, dropping hints and clues as your race through the book, desperate to find out what happens next. I loved Jay’s character – his sharp, sarcastic wit even in the middle of untold dangers. Eytan’s character is also fascinating, and I hope he features in more of David’s books. The plotting is excellent, the novel is fast-paced, and the translation is flawless – this book is guaranteed to keep you up all night!
Publication date: 30 April.