Thursday, July 24, 2014

Book Review: A HEART DECEIVED

Title: A Heart Deceived
Author: Michelle Griep
Publisher: David C Cook
Pages:  390







Reading A Heart Deceived by Michelle Griep, it is easy to get the impression that she was a contemporary of Charles Dickens. The author never falters when it comes to the fluency of the language of the time. It is this sureness of style that makes this romantic fiction, with a strong element of faith woven in, such an engaging read.

It is 1795 and 24-year-old Miri Brayden is beyond the age of marriage. She is also dependent on the goodwill of her brother, Pastor Roland, for her needs. She tries in vain to assert her independence between her brother’s bluster and the insipid alliance with Clive Witherskim, that he seeks to force upon her. 


Unfortunately, Miri dare not oppose Roland, a control freak and a bully, too strongly. His slowly weakening intellect and the increasing bouts of insanity visible in his actions are a secret that she tries hard to hide from the outside world. Any mention of it could lead to Roland finding himself in the lunatic asylum and force her to a life on the streets.

Meanwhile, Ethan Goodwin is a youth from London who has always lived by thieving, until now. Suddenly he finds himself unable to steal. He is drawn to the kindness of the Rev John Newton, and his claims of God’s mercy. But it is not so easy to give up a life of sin, opium addiction, thievery and other crimes. In an ill-fated moment, he is attacked by Nigel Thorne to whom he owes money. Thorne kills Ethan’s best friend, Will Brayden. Enraged, Ethan attacks Thorne and leaves him for dead.

Now on the run, Ethan rushes to Miri, hoping to make a fresh start. But Miri is desperately in need of a lifeline herself. The story of A Heart Deceived is the story of how these two young people, both hurting and miserable, find solace in each other and discover faith in God.

Griep’s research of the era is perfect to the last detail, beating time with the world as we know it from literature. A world in which diseases run rampant and life is forever at the mercy of the wealthy and the powerful.

Incidentally, the Rev John Newton in the book is based on the Anglican cleric, John Newton, who wrote the Christian hymn, Amazing Grace. The famous quote in which Newton spoke of being amazed by three things if he ever went to heaven has been incorporated into the novel.

The language is a delight, peppered with metaphors that force you to stop and read them again as you contemplate the blithe manner in which Griep has drawn parallels between seemingly unrelated objects. The many figures of speech, the similes and metaphors that are spread across the narrative (“as warm as a grandmother’s hug”) warm the heart too.

Griep is so successful at creating word pictures that one effortlessly begins to believe that one is present in a London of Dicken’s conjuring, one that is disease ravaged and throbbing with sin and wretchedness. In this near-parallel world, Ethan becomes the Oliver Twist who would like to leave his past behind and Thorne the Bill Sykes that won’t let him be.

The names, in the tradition of the time in which the book is set, serve to reveal the character of the person. For example, Goodwin, Witherskim, Thorne etc. Every character is well etched, making it easier for us to imagine ourselves in their shoes.

My only grouse is that in romanticising the story, Griep has forgotten the abject wretchedness suffered by opium addicts, particularly when they might seek to get over their addiction. Ethan may have strong will power, but what of the physical symptoms of attempting to go cold turkey? Griep spends so little time on describing his withdrawal symptoms that one thinks of him as a thief, yes, but forgets about his addiction.

The title of the book seems entirely irrelevant. Whose heart was deceived, I couldn’t really tell. Was it Ethan or Miri? Particularly since the deception is not really deceitful and does not last long.

Also, we are never told the details of why Will and Ethan were driven to a life on the streets. The scanty information provided on the subject makes their leaving home seem unconvincing. That they don’t have their father’s love seems insufficient cause for such rebellion and the willing exchange of a comfortable life for a wretched existence on the streets.

In spite of these issues, I loved A Heart Deceived, and was sorry to see it coming to an end. I particularly commend Griep for making a frightening bygone era seem like a living nightmare. So powerful is the writing that one can well imagine a world in which women have no rights at all. A world in which honest people may rot in jail, hang on the gallows or be pronounced insane, despite lack of evidence.


(I got a copy of this book through Netgalley. I read it on Kindle.)








Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review: THE PARIS LAWYER

Title: The Paris Lawyer
Author: Sylvie Granotier
Translator: Anne Trager
Publisher: Le French Book







The Paris Lawyer by Sylvie Granotier is a book to be savoured, for its plot, its character development, and above all, for the richness of its language.

Catherine Monsigny is a young lawyer, who is beginning to make a name for herself. Despite being self-assured, she still suffers from issues of abandonment from the loss of her mother, Violet, who was murdered while out on a walk, with little Catherine in a stroller.

Her heartbroken father, Dr Claude Monsigny, moves away from the neighbourhood and makes every attempt to raise Catherine up to have a normal life. So seriously does he undertake the task that he issues a blanket ban on any mention of her mother’s name, and discourages any conversations on the subject of her mother. Catherine grows up without any memories of her mother, except the fragmented memory of her last day.

Cedric Devers is a client accused of beating a woman he picked up in a bar. Catherine fights his case successfully, and slowly gets into a relationship with the much-older Cedric. Unknown to her, Cedric was also once her mother’s lover.

The defence of a woman, Maryam N’Bisse from Gabon, who has been charged with the murder of her husband, Gaston, a farmer, leads Catherine back to Creuse, the site of the greatest tragedy of her life.

Her attempts to probe into the murder of Gaston and be assured of the innocence of Maryam lead her, unknowingly and inexorably, to the resolution of the mystery of her mother’s death.

The writing is strong and nonprosaic. Sylvie’s writing is in the genre of literary fiction, forcing you to think and ruminate over her choice of words and phrases. The style is completely different from what one might expect of a legal thriller.

The novel is entirely in the present tense, no matter whether the situation is set in the past or the present. That kind of writing is very difficult to manoeuvre, and can very easily go wrong. Sylvie, however, manages to navigate through the present tense with consummate ease.

Using her writing to critique male attitudes (“Male crudeness can become a woman’s weapon.”) as much as to make a comment on society (She describes the IKEA syndrome as being one “where each step made in economic advancement rejects the preceding one.”), Sylvie reveals her penchant for sarcasm and her ironical voice, which she uses to telling effect.

These gems are scattered throughout the novel. In one place, she says, “Experience proves that once disorder reaches a certain level it gets no worse.” Elsewhere, “The mind of a great man contains all the information it needs.

This is the second time I have read the work of a French woman novelist, the first being The Seventh Woman by Frederique Molay. It is good to see the diligence with which both writers have built their women characters.

In The Paris Lawyer, the lead character, Catherine, is the strongest character in the novel. But she is no classic paragon of virtues. She is untidy and prone to disorder in her personal spaces, and she has a hopeless crush on her old boss, besides suffering abandonment issues on account of her mother’s death and her father’s unwillingness to confront the past. A single woman, she fears for her own safety yet is sexually active. A woman who borrows the toothbrush of a man with whom she has just had a one-night fling.

The other leading character is Maryam N’Bisse, a black woman from Gabon who is accused of killing her husband, a farmer, by poisoning him. Till the end, one is not quite sure about whether she is a victim of her circumstances, or a powerful person, who is playing the others.

The opening scene begins with a flashback from a child’s point of view, then leads us on through the fragmented of that child, now grown up, yet still a child, unable to break away from that one definitive memory. A child-adult who seeks to understand the events of that tragic day.

At first it seems as if there is no one single case to hold the plot together. And then one becomes aware that Catherine herself is the plot. The murder mystery of Gaston runs parallel to the unsolved murder of her own mother, which she must solve.

Like an onion, Sylvie peels the story apart, bit by bit, to reveal greater complexities. Catherine is a lawyer who tries to get facts while all the time she doesn’t know the right thing about herself, except the vague shadows that pass off as the single memory she has. Her vulnerabilities and insecurities stem from her mother’s death, and her father’s refusal to discuss the past or even keep her mother’s memory alive.

As readers, we are torn between feeling sympathetic towards Catherine, bereft of a mother’s love, and towards her father, who yearns for her affection even as she holds his withholding of the truth against him.

As the story progresses, the stage is set, and the supportive father watches helpless as his daughter is hurtled by destiny to an unbelievable denouement, even as she must choose between two men who are incapable of doing well by the women they love.

Sylvie’s writing envelopes you in a warm haze that makes you feel that you are listening to a soothing story, rather than reading it. The flashbacks are not set off and Catherine gets in and out of them seamlessly.

The description of the sex scenes between Catherine and Cedric are a novelty. Most novelists writing sex scenes get too caught up in describing the physical aspect of it. In Sylvie’s masterful writing, we get an understanding of the states of mind of Catherine and Cedric during the act, and of the psychological motivations that drive them on.

A mask of truth and fiction paints the whole. The lies that Catherine’s father tells her to shield her from the truth, which we, the readers, may or may not be privy to. The lies that Maryam tells Catherine to dissuade her from taking up her case. The lies that Catherine tells herself at various points to justify her actions to herself. The lies that Catherine tells in court to defend clients who are guilty. Eventually, it is about people soothing themselves with made-up stories, hoping to fool others and themselves too.

There is memory that remains repressed, and memory that comes gushing out. Histories that are repeated. Characters that play the same roles in not too different circumstances.

Creuse, the mysterious setting, comes alive twice over, once in Catherine’s memory and then in actuality. It is a place where people hold their secrets close to their chests, yet think nothing of leaving their cars and homes unlocked.

Much as we try not to, we find ourselves taking sides, trying to piece together clues that we have received through Catherine’s eyes.

I commend Anne Trager for her translation. I wonder how beautiful this must have been in the original, if Anne could make it come alive in a translated version.

This is one book I’d like to read again.




(I got a copy of this book through Netgalley. I read it on Kindle.)





Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: ANTI-SOCIAL NETWORK

Title: Anti-Social Network
Author: Piyush Jha
Publisher: Rupa Publications India

Pages: 200






I was so impressed with Compass Box Killer that I was actually looking forward to reading the next in the Mumbaistan series. I felt that in Inspector Virkar of the Mumbai crime branch, we had a hero of the finest calibre. One that fit the swashbuckling persona of the best of the protagonists of the genre.

Unfortunately, in the Anti-Social Network, the aura surrounding Inspector Virkar has dimmed somewhat. Understandably so, because with a bunch of cyber criminals to contend with, Virkar is totally out of his element. And yet, he bumbles on, with his usual never-say-die spirit, so characteristic of the city in which he (and the author) thrives, and manages to work out an answer to the problem in classic police fashion.

In this novel, some college students are found murdered. The killings are particularly gruesome, with the three victims missing their penis, tongue and eyes respectively, a clear message to the dead that they are unable to appreciate. Inspector Virkar of the Mumbai Crime Branch is called in, and his investigations reveal that the killings have a lot to do with some sex videos and the consequent blackmail and extortion. 


A college professor, Naina Rai, wheedles her way into the investigation. Soon she and her student, Richard, an expert hacker and a cocaine addict, are playing an important role in the plot.

When Virkar follows up on the case diligently and begins to come too close to the truth, he finds himself the target of the criminals. How he seeks to find the identity of the killer and the mastermind is the crux of the novel.

Jha is very good at descriptions and at building the action in the novel, scene by scene, layer by layer. Here you can actually imagine the scenes and it is easy to imagine the book as being some kind of a film that you are watching on the screen. That his muse is Mumbai city, in all its hard-nosed, unglamorous glory, is easy to see, and the author does complete justice to the setting.

For the most part, the writing was gritty, and made the reader feel as if he or she were a part of the action. I had been totally impressed by Compass Box Killer, with the manner in which it made the reader feel a part of the investigation, and with the way in which clues were revealed bit by bit, each clue leading to the next and, inexorably, to the climax.

However, I felt that a lot of that charge and adrenaline rush was missing in this book. I didn’t always feel as though the author meant to take the reader along. As a reader, I wasn’t as fully invested in Anti-Social Network as I was in Jha’s earlier novel. That might have been partly because Inspector Virkar was unfamiliar with how to deal with cyber crime. But Virkar’s computer illiteracy should not have translated into a weakness in the plot of the novel.

There were some themes that played out again. The mentor-protégé relationship was a theme that was exploited much better in Compass Box Killer.

[Spoiler alert: The next paragraph contains spoilers. Skip if you would rather find out for yourself.] 

The fact that Virkar’s romantic/sexual liaisons tend to betray his trust is another oft-played theme. I just hope Virkar will learn from his past experiences and steer clear of any affairs in the future.


The Marathi and Hindi transliterations are tedious because they are not done well. The mother of the first victim says to her husband, “Aooo deya ho,” meaning Virkar should be allowed to enter the house. The line should have read, “Yeoo dya ho.”

In another instance, the author uses the word ‘Girahak” instead of “Grahak.”

The ‘filmi’ dialogue, straight from a Bollywood potboiler, is also too much to stomach.

The writing could have done with tighter editing. There are some descriptions that add nothing to the plot of the novel. The extended introduction to Willingdon College makes no sense, particularly when it really doesn’t play that great a part in the plot.

The best thing that I can say about Anti-Social Network is that it draws attention to the potential for foul play inherent in the tendency of youngsters today to share every little detail about themselves on social media. This proves to be their undoing, as their digital footprint has the potential to harm them in more ways than one. In sounding a warning to the younger generation, Jha has lent a higher purpose to his novel.

Looked at as an example of crime fiction, however, Anti-Social Network fails to meet the mark. In the best traditions of Bombay slang, this book is ‘timepass.’

For a well written read in the Indian crime fiction genre, I’d still recommend Compass Box Killer.





The book was received as part of Reviewers Programme on http://thetalespensieve.com/reviewers-sign-up/">The Tales Pensieve
.






Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Book Review: MISS BRENDA AND THE LOVELADIES

Title: Miss Brenda and the Loveladies
Author: Brenda Spahn and Irene Zutell
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Pages: 240






Miss Brenda and the Loveladies is the remarkable account of one woman who made a difference in the lives of thousands of women convicts, enabling them to rebuild their lives and turn their backs on their guilty pasts.

Growing up in poverty, Brenda Spahn had built up her own accountancy and audit business and an enviable lifestyle for herself on the strength of her own hard work. Investigated by the IRS for a crime she hadn’t committed, and under the mercy of a fierce legal system which threatened to send her to jail for it, she learned to rely on God. She promised herself, and God, that if she were able to avoid imprisonment, she would take an active part in prison ministry. She would rehabilitate women ex-convicts and help them re-build their lives again.

She kept her promise. For months she worked with the inmates of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama, listening to them and giving them hope. The brief glimpse she had of prison life inspired in her the knowledge of the deadend it leads to. The knowledge inspired a God-directed vision, to give others a second chance, the way God had given her a second chance when she faced the possibility of years in prison.

And then the prison authorities sent her seven women convicts facing parole. One of these women was the proverbial gang leader from hell, and all were violent, hardened criminals who had done time for a host of felonies and crimes. The ones whose files declared them, CANNOT BE REHABILITATED.

And so began the greatest challenge that Brenda had ever undertaken.

Meanwhile, the housemother, cook and driver that she had hired quit on seeing the women. Through it all, Brenda has no idea what to do, or even what to do next. She fumbled on, knowing that God will direct her to do the right thing. Slowly the women got used to the routine at Brenda’s house, allowing Brenda’s faith to sweep over them.

It wasn’t easy. Living with ex-convicts who were doing time for some violent crimes. But Brenda never gave up. She overcame tremendous obstacles but refused to lose sight of her vision. Her patience and faith won eventually, as each of the women grabbed hold of the chance they had and decided to succeed, to repair their fractured lives and relationships.

Even as Brenda was convinced that the work she has undertaken was in keeping with God’s plan for her, she received a nasty surprise. When a local newspaper covered the work she was doing, her posh and wealthy neighbours accused her of harbouring convicts in their peaceful neighbourhood, and demanded that she leave immediately.

The hostility was overpowering and Brenda feared that this setback might spell the end of her programme. But God had a better plan. Eventually, He led Brenda on to establish the Lovelady Center in an abandoned hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. A whole-way house that serves 450 women and children every day, providing substance abuse counseling, drug rehabilitation, meals, childcare, career counseling, and job opportunities to women working to establish successful lives outside prison.

Miss Brenda and the Loveladies is the story of how Brenda got involved with a group of convicts and made their rehabilitation her life’s mission. This is not fiction, but real, although it does sound crazy enough to be fiction.

Each chapter begins with a quote that sets the stage for that which is to follow. The style is chatty, yet confessional, and matter of fact. The account is imbued with faith and hope, and conviction and a strong dash of humour. As when Brenda sees herself through the eyes of others and realizes just how crazy she must look.

Interspersed with Brenda’s narrative are single chapters each from Sharon “Shay” Curry, the toughest and the most vicious of the convicts, besides Tiffany, a drug abuser and felon, and Stephanie, an ex-employee of Brenda’s who came from a poor background and was helped by her boss, Brenda, and who eventually stole from her. The accounts detail the lives of physical and sexual abuse, besides drug abuse, stealing and prostitution.

Chapter 10, titled, “Imagine,” is hard hitting. Brenda proceeds to explain the abuse and deprivation that these women have gone through, through sentences preceded with the word, Imagine.

Imagine if when your parents ran out of drug money, they gave you to drug dealers in exchange for dope.” Or “No one cared that you wore the same pair of underwear for weeks.

With God’s help, the seven women later swelled to 20, and then to thousands of thousands. Brenda put in all she had into the programme, her money, time and resources, increasingly realising that it was her destiny to be doing that. Eventually she sold her business to devote herself full time to the programme.

Read this book to learn about how one woman, with God on her side, can achieve the seemingly impossible.

An inspiring true story, all the way.



    Blogging for Books provided this book to me for free in exchange for an honest review.




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