Roseanna by Sjowall and Wahloo

The first book in the classic Martin Beck detective series from the 1960s – the novels that shaped the future of Scandinavian crime writing. Hugely acclaimed, the Martin Beck series were the original Scandinavian crime novels and have inspired the writings of Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo. Written in the 1960s, 10 books completed in 10 years, they are the work of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo – a husband and wife team from Sweden.

Roseanna’ begins on a July afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from Sweden’s beautiful Lake Vattern. Three months later, all that Police Inspector Martin Beck knows is that her name is Roseanna, that she came from Lincoln, Nebraska, and that she could have been strangled by any one of eighty-five people. With its authentically rendered settings and vividly realized characters, and its command over the intricately woven details of police detection, ‘Roseanna’ is a masterpiece of suspense and sadness.(From Goodreads) 12104861

Honestly, I hadn’t heard of the book or the authors at all. I happened to come across it while browsing through the library and thought I’d give it a shot. I never realized Sjowall and Wahloo were such a big deal ! Their story is pretty amazing – it seems they wrote 10 novels in 10 years and would write alternate chapters through the night after putting their kids to bed.

As a novel, I would definitely recommend Roseanna but let me include a short note on the genre and style.

Roseanna is a “police procedural” which basically means that it is different from the usual crime fiction style of the crime, followed by introducing possible suspects, checking facts/alibis and finally the detective solving the case.

Here, the focus is more on how the police set about solving the crime when they have so little to work with. Like its mentioned in the blurb, she could have been murdered by any one of 85 people and here is the kicker – they were all tourists in Sweden ! So effectively the suspects are spread around the world and the concept of “alibis” doesn’t really apply here. Since it is about police work that takes place over years, the pace is slow but the interest remains high as they keep progressing towards their target.

There is also the occasional humour thrown in, some of which made me laugh out loud like this one where Beck’s colleague Kollberg reads out a statement from a tourist couple

“They had no idea that Sweden could be so nice. Damn it, I had no idea it could be either,’ continued Kollberg. ‘Of course the cabins were rather small and the second night – wait here is something – there was a big, hairy arachnida on the bed. Her husband had a great deal of trouble getting it out of the cabin. Well, does arachnida mean a sex maniac ?’

‘A spider,’ said Melander without taking his pipe put of his mouth.

‘I love the Danes,’ Kollberg continued.  

Give Roseanna a try ! 🙂

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Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore

Original Title – Ghaire Bhaire (Bengali)    Translated by – Sreejata Guha

I read this way back in January and it has taken me all this time to write something about it. This book enjoys a somewhat cult status in India but I’m afraid it wasn’t my cup of tea.

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Here is the blurb from Goodreads which pretty much sums it up

Set on a Bengali noble’s estate in 1908, this is both a love story and a novel of political awakening. The central character, Bimala, is torn between the duties owed to her husband, Nikhil, and the demands made on her by the radical leader, Sandip. Her attempts to resolve the irreconciliable pressures of the home and world reflect the conflict in India itself, and the tragic outcome foreshadows the unrest that accompanied Partition in 1947.

The only positive in this were the arguments on political ideology and ethics that Sandip and Nikhil have. Many people suggest that the character of Sandip was in fact based on Gandhi and his ideology and that Nikhil could have possibly been based on Tagore himself. These portions are indeed thought-provoking but are sadly only a very small portion of the novel. The major part is the love triangle.

This is where I was majorly irritated with the novel. The style of writing is completely lost on someone like me. It is “poetic something” ( I even forget what its called 😀 ). So we come across Bimala saying things like “he loved my body like a parijata flower from heaven” and “his waves of masculinity crashed against my feet like the ocean”. After all this, nothing happens (if you get what I mean).

Read it only if you like pages and pages of such writing.

My own feelings are summed up below

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

My first 5 star rating this year ! After a string of disappointing reads this feels so good ! 13446688

Yasuko lives a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, a good mother to her only child. But when her ex-husband appears at her door without warning one day, her comfortable world is shattered. When Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police tries to piece together the events of that day, he finds himself confronted by the most puzzling, mysterious circumstances he has ever investigated. Nothing quite makes sense, and it will take a genius to understand the genius behind this particular crime…

I am going to make this review very simple … GO AND READ THIS BOOK ! Especially if you are a fan of crime fiction. Even more so if you tired of the usual crime fiction template. I am not going to discuss anything more about the story since I want to be very careful in not giving away spoilers. I would also recommend that if you are planning on reading it, don’t go through too many reviews and risk it.

I don’t understand why the author has to be labelled the “Japanese Stieg Larsson”. Maybe it helps sell more but to me it seems unnecessary, especially since the styles are different.

On a side note, this also reminded me of an anime I was crazy about ages ago – Detective School Q. Those who know this would agree with me that it is one of the best crime solving shows ever. If you haven’t watched it, I would strongly recommend that you do. It is simply amazing ! Detective school q Vol1.jpg

Disgrace by J.M.Coetzee

I gave this book 3 out of 5 stars in Goodreads after a lot of thought. I say this because the writing was wonderful yet somehow I didn’t fall in love with the story. In all fairness, it is also possible that I completely missed reading between the lines. Its one of the problems I face when I read highly acclaimed works – the minute I start disliking them, I get the feeling that maybe I have missed something.

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The Blurb …

A divorced, middle-aged English professor finds himself increasingly unable to resist affairs with his female students. When discovered by the college authorities, he is expected to apologise and repent in an effort to save his job, but he refuses to become a scapegoat in what he see as as a show trial designed to reinforce a stringent political correctness.
He preempts the authorities and leaves his job, and the city, to spend time with his grown-up lesbian daughter on her remote farm. Things between them are strained – there is much from the past they need to reconcile – and the situation becomes critical when they are the victims of a brutal and horrifying attack.

Like I said, the writing is brilliant and its enriched by the fact that David Lurie is in fact a professor of Literature. Here is one such discussion on Wordsworth

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I also the way Lurie’s stand before the tribunal was phrased

“Manas, we went through the repentance business yesterday. I told you what I thought. I won’t do it. I appeared before an officially constituted tribunal, before a branch of the law. Before that secular tribunal I pleaded guilty, a secular plea. That plea should suffice. Repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.” 

If you are wondering why there is a dog on the cover, its because it is one of the central issues the book deals with. These parts make for really tough reading since the gruesome and inhumane killing of dogs is described in detail. I guess that is one of the “Disgrace” themes along with the more obvious ones outlined in the blurb.

None of the characters are close to being likable but that isn’t the objective here either so I won’t crib about that.

My only problem was with the continually shocking decisions taken by the daughter Lucy and her irritating way of communicating them. I’m not going to dismiss those decisions since I have no understanding of South African society during that period. But the way the decisions were presented wasn’t convincing at all.

If you have read the book, let me know if I am missing something. Especially if you have an understanding of South Africa.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre

The Circus has already suffered a bad defeat, and the result was two bullets in a man’s back. But a bigger threat still exists. The legendary George Smiley is recruited to root out a high-level mole of thirty years’ standing – though to find him means spying on the spies.

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Ok first, how cool does Gary Oldman look in that cover ? The entire image is actually made up of codes and the key character names are hidden in it 🙂

This is the first John Le Carre I’ve read though I have had it on my TBR forever. What did I think of it ? I quite liked it actually. When I first got it from the library, I was apprehensive that it would be a bit of a drag since it is over 400 pages but luckily that isn’t the case. Even at places where the author goes into considerable detail over files and reports, it isn’t boring.

It is different from other spy thrillers I have read though. There are no high intensity action sequences – Smiley works using only his intelligence and experience and even the descriptions of some of the more thrilling sequences are done in a very matter-of-fact conversational way. In that sense, it was a new type of thriller format for me.

If you like spy thrillers and are ok with 422 pages, then definitely go for it.

Also, it turns out I was living under a rock in 2011 when the movie came out. How on earth did I miss it especially when it had that powerhouse star cast ?

Have you read this and/or watched the movie ? What do you think ? 

Are the next 2 books in the trilogy worth a try ? 

Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber

Here is the unbelievable yet true story of Sybil Dorsett, a survivor of terrible childhood abuse who as an adult was a victim of sudden and mysterious blackouts. What happened during those blackouts has made Sybil’s experience one of the most famous psychological cases in the world.

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I had already mentioned a while back that this was a book I had to read as part of a twitter book club challenge. I probably wouldn’t have gravitated towards this on my own since psychology is not something I read – not because I don’t want to, I just haven’t. One of the book choices I cannot explain.

There is no suspense here – Sybil is the story of Sybil Dorsett who had 16 distinct personalities, what is referred to as “multiple personality disorder”. The character of Sybil Isabel Dorsett was later identified to be Shirley Ardell Mason sometime in the 1990s by an investigative journalist.

The author was a friend of Sybil’s psychiatrist Dr.Cornelia Wilbur and therefore was able to write the book with the full cooperation of both Dr.Wilbur and Sybil. The book starts from a point in Sybil’s treatment in the 1950s and keeps going back to her past – a childhood filled with horrible abuse.

The book ends with a list of questions for reading group discussions and, surprisingly, also has a few pages dedicated to the opinions of the skeptics. Two of those stand out – first, a lot of psychiatrists seem to believe that this is not a case of MPD and second, that Dr.Wilbur has suggested the 16 personalities to Sybil who has then willingly adopted them.

Overall, this seems to be a story that has generated wide interest. I found this on Goodreads – a book by Debbie Nathan that alleges that the entire story of Sybil is fabricated and it was an outcome of the ambition of Dr.Wilbur and the author.

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Which brings us to the question of whether this really is a “true story”. Personally, I found it pretty believable except for the part where Dr.Wilbur uses hypnosis, which sounded bunkum. In all, Sybil was definitely a page-turner for me.

That Long Silence by Shashi Deshpande

Jaya’s life comes apart at the seams when her husband is asked to leave his job while allegations of business malpractice against him are investigated. Her familiar existence disrupted, her husband’s reputation in question and their future as a family in jeopardy, Jaya, a failed writer, is haunted by memories of the past. Differences with her husband, frustrations in their seventeen-year-old marriage, disappointment in her two teenage children, the claustrophia of her childhood—all begin to surface. In her small suburban Bombay flat, Jaya grapples with these and other truths about herself—among them her failure at writing and her fear of anger.

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There is so much potential for an amazing story in that blurb ! But this was such a disappointing read that I have given it a 1 star rating on Goodreads which is something I rarely do.

Where do I even start ??

Ok first, the writing. Jaya is the narrator and I think it is deliberate to make it seem unorganized and rushed because it is, in essence, what she is thinking at that moment. I didn’t mind the style per se – here is a sample

The illusion of happiness – yes, I had to let it go. Perhaps the truth is that I was not then remote enough from the scene I was fantasizing about to sustain the illusion. Perhaps – who knows ? – after some years time …..

I had 2 problems – one, the numerous typos that were distracting and two, the unnecessary and repetitive usage of certain words and phrases. Heavy words like “diaphanous” for sarees and every few pages there is “ambrosial” and “perspicacity”. Not at all impressive.

More than the writing it was the character of Jaya that irked me. Despite all her constant outpouring of grief and frustration, not once did I feel any kind of empathy for her. This is a character who is pretentious and judgmental – how can the reader even begin to feel sorry ? She looks down on poor women because they are poor and she looks down on rich women because she feels they are just arm-candy. There is no apparent reason for disliking her husband or children. She turns her back on people who have helped her in life –  her mentally ill cousin, her college friend, her neighbour, etc, etc. Her neighbour, Mr.Kamat, is someone with whom she cultivates a friendship bordering on intimacy but when she walks to his room one day and discovers him dead, she just walks back to her apartment.

Now I have the suspicion that all these situations are thrown in just to make the novel fit in the “literary prizes and awards” category. That way, we have pages and pages of her grief described in poetic flourish.

But what I got was a snobbish work in which I felt no connect with the protagonist.

Have you felt this way about a book ? If so, let me know !!

Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler

Darkness at Noon (from the German: Sonnenfinsternis) is a novel by the Hungarian-born British novelist Arthur Koestler, first published in 1940. His best-known work tells the tale of Rubashov, a Bolshevik 1917 revolutionary who is cast out, imprisoned and tried for treason by the Soviet government he’d helped create.

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Its pure chance that I got my hands on this book. I was searching my parent’s bookshelf for something to read and found this – it was a 1960 copy dated and signed by my late grandfather. Once I searched the title online and found out about its iconic status, I had to read it. I’m glad I did. Here is how my copy looks though 🙂

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Understanding this book requires a knowledge of Russian history since the setting is the Moscow Trials of late-1930s. Frankly, I had no idea about this so after a few pages into the novel, I had to stop, read about the Trials and then resume. I would recommend doing that since nowhere in the novel is there any mention on Russia or Russian leaders. Without knowing the backdrop, the effect is lost.

The novel has an interesting history like that of the author

Koestler wrote the novel in German while living in Paris, from where he escaped in 1940 just before the Nazi troops arrived. The text was lost. Darkness at Noon owes its publication to the decision of his lover in Paris, the sculptor Daphne Hardy, to translate it into English before she herself escaped. Koestler, having deserted from the French Foreign Legion, fled to Portugal, where he heard a bogus report that the ship on which Hardy – and his manuscript – were travelling to Britain had been sunk. He attempted suicide (with pills purloined from Walter Benjamin). [Guardian article link] 

There are 2 main threads in the story – Rubashov’s own introspection about the revolution and the ‘hearings’ where Rubashov is interrogated by officers Ivanov (his contemporary) and Gletkin (the new guard).

Rubashov’s character contemplates extensively about politics and ideologies and about questions about whether it is ethical to sacrifice a few for the greater good and whether the end justifies the means.

We seem to be faced with a pendulum movement in history, swinging from absolutism to democracy, from democracy back to absolute dictatorship. The amount of individual freedom which a people conquer and keep, depends on the degree of its political maturity

When the level of mass-consciousness catches up with the objective state of affairs, there follows inevitably the conquest of democracy, either peaceably or by force.

From the third hearing conducted by Gletkin till the end, it is a tough read since you sympathize with Rubashov and have a premonition of what is going to happen.

Overall, it is a wonderful read especially for those interested in history and politics.

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

Jack McEvoy is at the end of the line as a crime reporter. Forced to take a buy-out from the Los Angeles Times as the newspaper grapples with dwindling revenues, he’s got only a few days left on the job. His last assignment? Training his replacement, a low-cost reporter just out of journalism school. But Jack has other plans for his exit. He is going to go out with a bang — a final story that will win the newspaper journalism’s highest honor — a Pulitzer prize.

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This is the first Michael Connelly novel that I have read so I can’t offer any comparisons with The Poet or the Harry Bosch series.

I enjoyed The Scarecrow quite a lot actually. As I have stated many times on this blog before, thrillers and mysteries are my favourite genres. When I am reading them, its almost like I am in some kind of bookish comfort zone. Thankfully, this did not disappoint.

The identity of “The Scarecrow” is revealed in the 1st few chapters itself. So the book is more about how McEvoy uses his limited time as a journalist and limited resources to track down a suspect and how the Scarecrow is always a step ahead.

But the main reason why I liked it was the climax. It wasn’t predictable. Well, good does win over evil as always but it isn’t in some silly hero vs villain knife fight so that was a relief.

There is also a love interest which I guess is from the previous novel. Is a romantic angle really necessary in a thriller like this ? I don’t know but I’m guessing its a template of sorts. Even if the hero has to prevent some nuclear explosion thing-y and thwart World War 3, he still has time for romance. Personally I’m willing to overlook this cliche as long as it doesn’t hamper the flow of the narrative.

So if you like thrillers, give this a shot.

Let me know what you think !

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

I guess most of you will already be familiar with Jeeves and Bertie Wooster. This book is centred around Bertie’s friend Bingo Little who falls in love with every girl he meets. How he keeps getting into trouble and how Jeeves bails him out is the book in a sentence.

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I’m surprised it took me this long to read Wodehouse since almost everyone in the family is a fan. My dad and uncle have read all the Jeeves books and have gone one step further to read the Psmith series as well.

But in a case of the apple falling far from the tree, I must confess that I’m not a fan of the book. I had to labour hard to finish it and it took me months.

I have always held humour as a genre in high esteem whether it be books or movies. And even in this case, I admire the writing and there were places where I did laugh out loud. Here are some of my favourites ..

Everything seemed to be going right. On three separate occasions horses on which I had invested a sizeable amount won by lengths instead of sitting down to rest in the middle of the race, as horses usually do when I’ve got money on them.

“Have you told her ?”
“No . I haven’t the nerve. But we walk together in the garden most evenings, and ti sometimes seems to me, that there is a look in her eyes”
“I know that look. Like a sergeant major” 

 He appeared a trifle reassured and lowered the umbrella. But just then the most frightful shindig started in the bedroom. It sounded as if all the cats in London, assisted by delegates from outlying suburbs, had got together to settle their differences once and for all. A sort of augmented orchestra of cats 

What then was the problem ? There is no plot or storyline at all. It is just a collection of circumstances that could almost pass off as a collection of short stories. One chapter isn’t connected to the next and I suspect that even if I change the chapter orders or delete a few, it wouldn’t make a difference. The effect is that it makes for excruciatingly slow reading. As someone who likes fast-paced novels more, I found this really irritating.

Whether you like the book or not will therefore depend a lot on your personal taste in novels. If you give importance to writing over everything else, you will love this. If you are like me, you may not.

Don’t forget to share what you think ! Should I have started with some other title ?

More importantly, is it ok to not like classics ?