Shades Of Words

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Good Evening, Mrs. Craven


I often find that great stories are not just about the writing, the plot or the characters, but what they tell us of the human condition.  That is what really pulls me into the pages and makes me think about what I have read long after I finished the book.  Stories about ordinary women in extraordinary situations are my personal favorite, which is why I am in love with Good Evening, Mrs. Craven.

The author, Mollie Panter-Downes was a columnist for The New Yorker during the Second World War. Over the years she contributed war reports in the form of Letters from London and several short stories. Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is the compilation of these stories. The focus on these stories is not on the battlefields, the soldiers or the war machine itself, but the effect of war on the home front in England.  These are the stories of women who may not be sitting in trenches in the line of fire, but are still acutely aware of the danger the war brings – both emotional and physical.

The collection is a mix of the comical and the tragic, of the optimistic and the hopeless. These short, sharp stories give us a window into what would have been the condition of hundreds of civilians as the years of the war swept by. The stories are arranged in a chronological order, with each story being darker than the ones before.  And all the stories are very, very English. There is not a touch of histrionic to be found anywhere; an entire nation is facing Armageddon but the stiff upper lip only just quivers.

With the declaration of war so many people in small villages across England found themselves playing hosts to families, friends and strangers escaping the air-raids of London. Outwardly a sense of righteousness prevails with the noble act of providing help to those who need. In the hearts there is the natural apprehension of strangers as portrayed in In Clover where a lower class poor mother and her children find refuge at the fancy Manor House in the village. All attempts at gentrification fail and the gentle folk are confused when the ‘lucky’ family gives up on the better life and decides to go back. All the good intentions cannot make up for the loss of privacy and the annoyance of guests as in Mrs. Ramsay’s War who finds her cottage and life taken over by kin of her friends. Mrs. Dudley, In Danger cannot believe her state of happiness when her evacuees leave.

‘But happiness was beginning to steal over her. She gave up trying to do anything, and went out into the hall and started drifting aimlessly from room to room, luxuriously listening to their emptiness. She couldn’t remember when she had last felt so happy”

For some the war is a much needed respite from the dullness of their existence. The war has opened up opportunity to be useful, to be wanted. Meeting at the Pringles focuses on the petty politics of the village committees set up to help with war efforts. Issues of leadership and organization are discussed with firm politeness and only the English genteelness kept the rivalries and jealousies at bay.

Even as other’s find purpose, there is still a lot of loneliness to go around.  The Waste of it All finds Frances desperately holding on to the memories of her husband before the war – a man she was briefly married to and now only knows through long letters. She has learned to live her life without him and replaces with a borrowed family. Only when the illusion breaks, does the revelation of wasted years bite her. My personal favorite is Goodbye, My love in which Ruth prepares for her husband’s imminent departure for military service.  Nothing and no one can comfort her or prepare for the moment of farewell. It takes all of her strength to put on a brave face.

Not all stories are about women. For men war is time for serving the country, fighting for freedom, for glory and even getting shot is better than being left behind. In It’s a real thing this time a retired Major Marriot keeps hoping for being called in for duty. He keeps hoping that the war gets worse and it gets ‘real’ and his country needs him. In the last pages of the story, his neighbor finds him keeping vigil at the night sky waiting for enemy paratroopers.

‘He shifted the gun from one arm to the other and looked  up again at the sky. Mrs. Trent could see in the half-light that he was smiling sweetly ….The Major looked up for the falling body of a German soldier like a lover watching for a sign from a stubbornly closed window”.

In Year of Decision, Mark Goring who has spent most of the war at a desk job,  can’t help feeling happy at the chance of going to an overseas appointment  and seeing some action.

The beauty of the stories is in the subtlety, in the thoughts between the lines and the haunting presence of war. The only way to understand is to read them.


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The Marcus Didius Falco Series

Marcus Didius Falco is a private informer and the protagonist of Lindsey Davis’s mystery series set in Ancient Rome. Emperor Vespasian has come into power and good imperial agents are required to hide royal crimes, curb corruption and sniff out political scandals. I first came across Falco and his exploits in ‘The Silver Pigs‘ where he accidentally falls upon an imperial minting fraud. The investigation kick starts with the death of a Senator’s young and impressionable niece . The story is not a murder mystery but more of a government backed investigation. Falco’s inquiry  takes him into the desperate neighborhoods of Ancient Rome and across the channel to the edges of Roman empire in cold and dry Britannia. Nefarious plots to overthrow the Emperor are discovered and the investigation gets more bloody. Along the way we are introduced to a cast of characters that will continue to be central to Falco’s investigative efforts. There is Petronius Longus, an employee of Roman police force who is often the reluctant inside source for information for Falco. Helena Justina is the sharp and witty daughter of the Senator who predictably forms Falco’s love interest. She also brings some diversity into a vastly male cast of characters. Falco’s garrulous family makes several excursions only to add to the length of book and its feeble attempts at humor.

While there is a lot of fodder for a great novel ‘The Silver Pigs’ fails to deliver. The flaws are plenty, the biggest being the first person narrative. I believe Davis was inspired by the film noir detectives who presented their sordid lives to the viewers in their ironical, dry style. Falco tries but is never convincing. He tries too hard to push his intelligence, charm and wit down our throats. The first rule of writing is to show and not tell. Unfortunately with Falco, the story appears to be a really long monologue. All your impressions of people and places are made through his lens of humor and satire none of it which is funny. This becomes painful in fight sequences where Falco explains every motion of his body as he punches around thugs.

The other flaw is the meandering plot. It digresses so often that you read chapters and chapters without making any headway in the solving of the mystery. Fast paced these novels are not. Davis has clearly put in a lot of hours researching the minutiae of life in Rome. The writing is eager in describing every little detail of Roman architecture, culture and life. Only in some cases does it organically fit in with the story while in most cases it feels text bookish. One of my favorite descriptions of Rome are when Falco and his client, Helena, are on the run and escape into the by lanes of Rome at night.

The third flaw which I find the hardest to overcome is the writing itself. I know there is problem with the quality when I mentally start scratching off words and rewriting sentences as I read along. Dialogues are often accompanied with tone descriptions of ‘gasped’, half-grinned’, ‘said satirically’, ‘snapped’, ‘snapped back’ that it gets exhausting after a while to keep up with the emotions with each statement. It’s hard to point but there is something off about the writing in general. It’s too elaborate yet casual as if Davis is not able to find the right form representing the period. It reminded me of  Amish Triphati’s ‘Shiva Trilogy’ and his struggle to keep the language relevant to the period of the novels set in ancient India .

I don’t know why but I still went ahead and bought a couple of books in the series from a bookstore near my house just to see if there was any progression in characters or writing. ‘Scandal Takes a Holiday‘ is a much later novel and the most useful thing I learnt from it was about piracy during Ancient Rome. More overly complicated and meandering plots and more inane writing.’Alexandria‘ is the only one that I enjoyed. It is actually a more traditional closed door murder mystery with a definite list of suspects and motives. The writing is more taut. The location is of course Alexandria, beautifully described but not overtly so. I would still make it 100 pages shorter!

I have only read only 3 of the dozen in the series and feel equipped to pronounce some sort of judgement. It may definitely cater to a certain type of reader and maybe even certain reading mood, but in a market inundated with murder mystery novels I think I am done with my experimentation with Falco and most definitely will not be reading another one.

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Georgette Heyer’s Frederica

Book Cover

Reading “Frederica” was one of the best things that I did this month. It satisfied the literary snob in me with its language and character development, but it also engaged the over-worked, hassled mom in me who doesn’t have the time for complex plots.

The Heyer novels specialize in Regency Romances and while they give an insight to Georgian lifestyles and fashions ( quite deliberate on the fashion!) they don’t intend to do more than entertain. The plot line is fairly simple and predictable – in this case a rich and arrogant Marquis has to undertake the guardianship of a precocious set of distant cousins.The eldest of the four cousins is Frederica, who though not as pretty as her younger sister, is charming,witty, clever and unpretentious. Extremely different from any sort of gold-diggers that Marquis is used to. Of course they are going to fall in love, but it’s how that happens is extremely entertaining with several laugh out loud plot lines. What also sets this apart that the real focus of the story is not the actual love story, but the relationships of all the characters. The Marquis relationships with his older,interfering sisters, Frederica’s dynamic with her siblings, the parallel sub-plots of other couplings and most interestingly the Marquis’ transformation from a careless bachelor into a family man who becomes a father-like figure to Frederica’s underage brothers.

As a feminist, I do have several issues with the way women are represented here – the dumb-blonde-beauty stereotype, the not-pretty-but-clever stereotype, the end-goal-of-women’s-life-is-marriage stereotype, the arrogant-masculine-jerk hero stereotype – but I won’t because I think it would be assuming that these books have a larger significance.

For the few hours that I poured over this book, I was successfully transported into the glamorous life of aristocratic England and that was a good diversion 🙂


The Four Graces by D.E Stevenson

The Four Graces is a pleasant, relaxing beach read for the discerning reader. Early 21st century England, life at the vicarage in a quaint parish, local gossip, eligible young bachelorette’s – it’s fairly staple Victorian fare. Not quite up the alley as Gaskell or Trollope, there is sufficient amount of plot to keep it interesting. The war clouds hovering over the story add some depth to the somewhat two dimensional storyline.

The Four Graces are the daughters of the Vicar of a small village (the name of which I can’t recall).  Sal, Liz and Tilly live with the father. Addie works in London. The book may as well have been called the ‘The Three Graces as Addie is hardly in it and is clearly not loved as much by all the sisters. She is painted as a self-centered, immature girl who does not have much regard for her sisters’ lives or hardships in the village. What I do like about the book is that the portrayal of the sibling relationship is realistic. The four sisters love each other, but there is does exist elements of friction over matters big and small.

As there are four young girls of marriageable age, the central plot predictably includes love interests. Several eligible men make their appearances. There is for instance the young Roderick Herd who inexplicably takes to hanging about the household, sending mixed signals to the girls about his interest. Then there is William Single, a professor type of indeterminate age, who comes to stay with them. A lot of space in the book is spent in developing their relationships with the girls.

There also is the annoying Aunt Rona, who imposes herself on the household and then goes on to become even less endearing by needless matchmaking.

In terms of character development, the book makes clear all the four sisters have their own personalities but does not really dive into them. Tilly, the youngest follows in Sal’s footsteps, but is much inspired by Liz and starts to find her own voice towards the end.    The most interesting character in the book for me is Liz – she is the only one who imbibes some quality of the modern women. She is outdoorsy, independent, witty, calls a spade a spade. For unfathomable reasons, she is not her dad’s favorite who tries to find the image of his late wife in them.

This book will pass very nicely as a young adult novel that introduces this generation to the Great War.  Even in the tranquility of the English village life, the realities of war are not far away. Everything is in short supply and rationed – salt, sugar, meat, clothes, patience, and faith. An extra guest is a strain on the resources. Small events in the village life take larger significance and are important distractions. There is the fear of separation and death. Men are on the frontlines, and women are also joining the services. Each family has a life or two at stake.

But days go on. People get married, have babies, gossip and plan village fetes.


The Casual Vacancy : Small town soap

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

J.K. Rowling’s foray into adult fiction is surprisingly good albeit a little depressing. I have enjoyed the Harry Potter series for its concept and plot and never from a literary standpoint. This novel on the other hand is stronger on the language and structure whereas the plot is tepid.

The narrative starts with a Casual Vacancy-created by the death of a council member of a Pagford, small fictional town in England. We are quickly introduced to the central cast of characters as they react to this news. Inner motives, emotions and political ambitions are revealed. The burning issue that divides the town of Pagford is the presence of a small poverty ridden settlement of Fields which falls under Pagford county due to an accidental sale of land 60 years ago. The self-labelled genteel folks of Pagford have been keen ever since to hand off Fields to the neighbouring town along with its problems. As the dead man was the only crusader for the case FOR keeping Fields,the vacancy is quite coveted. Of course, nothing is what it looks like and everyone appears to be hiding a dirty little secret which are revealed by a voice beyond the grave – or so it would seem. The social situation is explained through the stories of different characters on either side of the Fields fence, in a manner of speaking. There is enough drama in the snoozing lives of this town to keep the reader going on with a strong temptation to skip half a dozen pages or so, every now and then.

The Casual Vacancy is a not so subtle commentary on the increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots, the confusion on effectiveness of government programs and deep prejudices that run in what has been an essentially a feudal society. However, there are times when it feels that J.K Rowling is trying too hard to make a point. All together they seem to work, but individually none of the characters are engaging. And there are so many of them. In a span of of the first fifty pages we are introduced to a dozen people that spot the social fabric of Pagford, and not one of them seem to be happy or healthy. It’s as if everyone in and around this little town is festering with frustrations and lost ambitions. Class clashes, domestic and sexual abuse, drug issue and racism abounds. Sometimes it appears to be too much and you keep flipping through hoping to catch the silver lining of the cloud. Is 21st century society in such a state of decline?

The only other note that I have that maybe this book could have been a hundred pages shorter. In fact, there are several character arcs that we could have done away entirely without impacting the story line !

It’s not one of the better novels that I have read, but it was not a waste of time. If you happen to find it in your reach, read it.

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A Lost Lady

Written by Pulitzer winner Willa Cather, A LostLady is an example of American Pioneer literature. Of course, I did not know all this when I randomly picked this book in the local library. Pioneer literature covers the trials and tribulations of the American explorers who moved westwards in search of land and riches from the heavily populated East. Most of the expansion was by settlers who worked on railways which were being built to connect mining towns. Any Pioneer’s town population was often divided into two sets of classes. The management comprising of the land owners, or rich industrialists that came into the west with the railroad and mines. They set up an upper class of society which included their bankers and solicitors.  Then there was the working class – the farmers who leased the land, the miners and the railroad workers. While there existed no open resentment, the actions of the rich were subject of much observation and gossip as they continue to this very day.

The novella centers around Mrs. Captain Forrester, a young beautiful something who marries a man almost twice her age for reasons not clear initially.  Everyone around her admires her for grace, kindness, and vivacious personality. As a reader however, you can sense that something is not right or there is some flaw which is waiting to burst out the gossamer of beauty that is set up around her. The narrative is in third person and in most places presents the picture as seen in front of Niel, a young family friend of the Forrester’s. He is spends a lot of time at the Foresters partly due to his admiration for the Captain and the partly for his boyish infatuation for Mrs. Forrester. The story runs in two parallels.  There is the illusion and the dream of the west – of wealth, beauty and the old world gentility.  All this slowly falls apart as the economy collapses due to the bubble and the middle class then emerges, now in a position to negotiate for lands, jobs and deals that they had no chance at earlier.  The old values give away to the new more mercenary demands. The other story is that of our Lost Lady, Mrs. Forrester who to Neil is the promise of everything wealthy, beautiful and classic. Then as layers of her character and her unfaithfulness revealed, the illusion breaks. He realizes that everything about her is transient. What gave her beauty was not herself but her marriage to the Captain who was a better human being than her. When the Captain dies she is a rudderless ship and all restraint and class disappears – she is truly lost. Lost to herself and lost to the world.

The story primarily made an impression on me because it talks of a culture and time that I am completely unfamiliar with. There are some elements of feminism in Mrs. Forrester’s character and while she may not be the best of persons, she does seem a victim of the times as much as that of her own transgressions. I really did enjoy the writing too especially how Cather captures the untouched beauty of the west in her descriptions of the wilderness surrounding the small town in Omaha. One can’t help but yearn for a time and place so far away from the rush of our daily lives.


The Thirteenth Tale

Image Courtesy GoodReads

Recommended by a friend and my love for gothic novels,  made me pick up the copy of “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfiled. I generally approach contemporary writers for some trepidation – much like Margaret Lea, the narrator of our book – but from the very first chapter I was impressed.

The book’s opening sentence “It was November” is the perfect starting for a dark, ghost story. For this is what it is; a ghost story of sorts. Maybe not of supernatural beings, but haunted memories of family secrets, lies, pain and deaths.

Margaret Lea is a young recluse and a biographer, who lives above her father’s bookshop in Yorkshire.  That she prefers books over people, is understandable and I think quite sensible. The story starts with an intriguing letter Margaret receives from Ms. Vida Winter, a famous novelist of her time requesting Margaret to be her biographer.  Ms. Winter is most known for her collection of short stories “Thirteen tales of Change and Desperation”; where famously there is no Thirteenth Tale. It has been desire of the general populace to always know what that untold story is.

Now no one really knows about Ms. Winter’s life or her origins. Any journalist who has asked the relevant questions has been given a different answer every time. So why does she want this little known biographer to tell her story? Will she finally tell the truth about herself? Will she disclose her thirteenth tale?

It’s with these questions that Margaret goes to visit Ms. Winter.   After an unusual interview, Margaret agrees to write the biography of Ms. Winter. It is at this point the where the story within the story takes hold and we travel back to Ms. Winter’s childhood in Angelfield

The writing is rich, fluid and has an ominous undertone which makes it deliciously gothic. There are bits and pieces which are truly chilling and grotesque; the incestuous relationship between siblings, the “something not right” with the children, the cruel governess, the rumoured ghost of Angelfield, the unnoticed murder. As you go deeper the horrors of Angelfield are truly revolting, but what keeps you hooked is the sense that there is still a larger horror to be unraveled.

Margaret is consumed by the story, as she fights her own demons. The book heavily focuses on the relationship of the “twins” – the ones in Angelfield and the Margaret’s own dead twin. Personally I found Margaret’s grieving for a twin that she never knew a little tedious and overtly sentimental. These were the only parts of the book that I wish were gone.

However, “The Thirteenth Tale”, is complex plot driven novel written extremely well. There are evident homage to “The Turn of the Screw”, “Jane Eyre” and “Lady Audley’s Secret” which at times are too obvious but still interesting anyone who loves this genre.