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I still haven’t finished reading The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It’s been two – three weeks now since I started reading it and it’s been slow-going because I’m so tired these days from work and taking care of my 16 month old daughter who is becoming more and more precocious by the day. I read only about 10 pages a day, sometimes less, at night in bed and usually konk out with the book in my hands. It is a wonderful book, don’t get me wrong. I’m loving the plot. It’s very fresh and original. Much like when I first read Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” and was blown away by the originality of that one where the story is told by the soul of a dead girl in heaven, narrating the events leading to and after her death.

I shan’t go too much into it now lest this becomes a mini review of an unfinished book.

Reading The Time Traveler’s Wife made me curious about who Audrey Niffenegger is so I wikied her and discovered the following:-niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger (born June 13, 1963 in South Haven, Michigan) is an American writer and artist. She is also a professor in the Interdisciplinary Book Arts MFA Program at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts. She is the founding member of T3 or Text 3, an artist and writer’s group that also performs and exhibits in Chicago.

Niffenegger’s debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), was a national bestseller. The Time Traveler’s Wife is an unconventional love story that centers on a man with a strange genetic disorder that causes him to unpredictably time-travel and his wife, an artist, who has to cope with his frequent and unpredictable absences. The film version, starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, is due for release in 2010.

She has also written a graphic novel, or “novel in pictures” as Niffenegger calls it, called The Three Incestuous Sisters. This book tells the story of three unusual sisters who live in a seaside house. Because of the artwork and mood, the book has been compared to the work of Edward Gorey.

Another graphic novel, The Adventuress, was released in September 1, 2006. The 2004 short story ‘The Night Bookmobile’ is currently being serialised in ‘Visual Novel’ format in The Guardian newspaper in the UK and can be viewed here.

In March 2009, Niffenegger sold her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, for an advance of $5 million to Charles Scribner’s Sons, a unit of Simon & Schuster, after a fiercely contested auction. The book is reportedly slated for publication in the fall of 2009.

Niffenegger is also a Faculty member at the North Shore Art League where she teaches the Intermediate & Advanced Printmaking Seminar.

I found out also that there is a short story by her called The Night Librarian that was adapted into a graphic novel format and serialised in The Guardian from 31 May 2008 until 27 December 2008 and titled The Night Bookmobile. I am now hooked on it and thought I’d share a the first 4 pages of the story here:

bookmobile12bookmobile21bookmobile31bookmobile4

Interesting, isn’t it? You can visit the Guardian website and click on the magnifying glass to enlarge the pictures for easier reading. This one has really opened my eyes to the concept of graphic novels, something I used to dismiss as mere comics or lightweight, forgettable reading. But then again, I can still vividly recall Maus from my childhood. Hmm…

kite-runner1“For you,

a thousand times over.”

These words still bring tears to my eyes and cause a lump in my throat, even now, weeks after I finished reading and very proudly displayed Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner on my book-shelf. These simple words uttered by Hassan to Amir, a child servant to his master’s son, a Hazara to a Pashtun – full of unconditional love and affection, is the premise of the whole book.

The Kite Runner is a tale that unveils in Kabul, Afghanistan and spans the reign of King Mohammed Zahir Shah, his eventual toppling by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan and the birth of the Afghan Republic (1973), President Daoud’s removal and execution by the military-communist coup plotters in the Saur Revolution (1978), thereafter the eruption of the civil war between the Republican/Communist-Soviet forces against the mujahideen rebels up until the arrival of the Taliban in present day Afghanistan – told the way it is seen and experienced by ordinary Afghans in their daily lives.

In the heart of this rich tapestry of history and colors lies the story of a childhood friendship and that of a family torn apart amidst the conflict that led to the Afghan diaspora. Our protagonist is the young boy Amir, son of a successful and well-respected businessman whom we know only as “Baba” (Father), belonging to the upper class and more politically dominant ethnic Pashtun and his relationship with Hassan, the son of Ali who is a servant in Amir’s palatial house in the Wazir Akhbar Khan district in Kabul. Ali is a Hazara, an ethnic group generally regarded as inferior in Afghan society.

Amir lives in the grand house with Baba. Hassan lives in the small servant’s hut outside the house with Ali. Both boys do not have their mothers. Amir’s died giving birth to him and Hassan’s abandoned him and his father (Ali) shortly after delivering him. Both boys grow up and play together though only Amir goes to school whereas Hassan stays home to do house chores – cooking meals, cleaning and ironing, amongst other things. Both are very loved by Baba and at times, Amir fights for his father’s affection and attention; jealous at Baba’s almost equal treatment of Hassan. This leads Amir to seek attention from Baba’s good friend and business partner, Rahim Khan, whom Amir thinks has more patience for him and also, a better understanding of him. It is Rahim Khan who encourages Amir to hone his writing skills by giving him a notebook on his birthday.

Hassan is illiterate but enjoys the quiet moments he has with Amir under their pomegranate tree (on its trunk thekiterunner_855_18380299_0_0_7008355_300theycarved, “Amir and Hassan –  The Sultans of Kabul”) where they go after Amir comes home from school. There, Amir reads to him from various books of which his favourite is the Shahnamah, a tenth century epic of ancient Persian heroes. His favourite story from the Shahnamah is “Rostam and Sohrab” which he pesters Amir to read over and over again.

They play games along the streets, go watch American movies such as The Magnificent Seven and Rio Bravo dubbed in Farsi and of course, during the winter school holidays, take part in the annual kite-fighting competition. As is the practice, the winner is the one with the kite still flying after all the others have been cut down using glass-coated kite strings in mid-air, something Hassan and Amir excel at. And when a kite is cut and falls back to earth, it is the  crowd of kite-runners who run towards it, coveting it as a prize, pushing and shoving each other.

“When a kite-runner had his hands on a kite, no one could take it from him. That wasn’t a rule. It was custom.”

In the winter of 1975, Amir takes part in the kite-fighting competition, eager to win and gain Baba’s admiration. kite_runner_01Hassan, as always, is at his side as his faithful friend … and kite-runner. As the competition draws to an end, only two kites are left flying, one of which is Amir’s. He glances repeatedly towards Baba trying to see if he is watching. This is his shining moment and he shines even more when he cuts down his competitor’s and emerges the winner. In jubilation, he runs towards the direction of his father as Hassan runs off in the opposite direction to try and retrieve the fallen kite.

Much time passes before Amir realises that Hassan is missing and he goes off in search of him, only to find him in an alley cornered by Asseff and his gang. Amir and Hassan had previously been bullied by Asseff and had managed to break free from him only after Hassan took out his slingshot and threatened to shoot Asseff’s eye if he harmed Amir. This time, Asseff is set on exacting his revenge for that past humiliation and this he does by sodomising Hassan. Amir watches on from the corner of the alleyway, torn between keeping quiet or rushing to Hassan’s aid. Ultimately, he chooses to close his eyes and run home, pretending nothing happened.

Hassan comes home shortly and hands over to Amir the kite he had managed to retrieve. A gift. He says nothing about what had happened to him in the alley. Amir also keeps quiet. But as the days pass, Amir begins to feel guilt-ridden for not helping Hassan, for standing there while Asseff raped him, for being a coward. Slowly, unable to come to terms with his own guilt, Amir begins to despise Hassan for everything that Hassan does –  his total love and affection towards Amir and Baba,  his selflessness, how he stood up to Asseff for Amir .. everything that is Hassan is a reminder to Amir about what he is not. He distances himself from Hassan, refusing to play with or talk to him. One day, he puts money and a watch under Hassan’s mattress and accuses him of theft. Without any protest, Hassan readily accepts responsibility.

“I flinched, like I’d been slapped. My heart sank and I almost blurted out the truth. Then I understood: This was Hassan’s final sacrifice for me. If he’d said no, Baba would have believed him because we all knew Hassan never lied. And if Baba believed him, then I’d be the accused; I would have to explain and I would be revealed for what I really was.”

Baba steps in and forgives Hassan but that cannot stop Ali from leaving the house, bringing Hassan with him. He begs and pleads with him to stay but Ali says no. The bags are packed and they must go and return to Hazarajat. And so they leave and that is the last Amir sees of Hassan and Ali.

Soon after, Amir and Baba themselves flee Afghanistan, away from the civil war. First to Peshawar in Pakistan and finally to the US where Amir grows up, graduates from university, meets a fellow Afghan and gets married and through it all is still haunted by his memories of Hassan and his own guilt. That is, until he receives a phone call one day all way from Pakistan … from an old and ailing Rahim Khan, who tells him:

“There is a way to be good again.”

And with those words, Amir journeys back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to revisit his past and ultimately, to seek redemption through the rescue of a small orphaned child, named after his dead father’s favourite story character, Sohrab.

Many things come full-circle in Afghanistan. Promises are kept, a threat carried out to fruition and a family reunited. I don;t want to reveal anymore because I strongly feel that this is a book everyone should read. The story is both devastating and beautiful. It touched me so deeply and still resonates within me. So many times, I had to stop reading because I could not read the blurred words through my teary eyes.  My heart ached and I struggled to accept how so much misfortune could befall such kind and innocent souls such as Hassan and Ali.

But there are also beautiful and sweet moments, between Hassan and Amir during their childhood; the romance between Amir and Soraya and also between Baba and Amir. At this juncture, I am reminded of one part of the book where Baba teaches a young Amir something about religion, and it is something I truly agree with.

“Now, no matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. … When you kill a man, you steal a life,” Baba said. “You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.”

There are so many truths in this story that we all share, truths that transcend race and religion. We sometimes forget what is beautiful about Afghanistan because for so long we have seen only images of war, suffering and religious extremism. This book is a timely reminder that there is so much more to this country, so much history and age-old wisdom.

Read. Read this book. Your life would be much better for it.

kites1

The Kite Runner (Persian: کاغذ‌پران‌بازKāğazparān Bāz) was adapted into film and was nominated for the 2007 Academy Award. It was directed by Marc Forster. (See more on Wikipedia).

Verdict : 5 out of 5

What’s Good: An unforgettable book with a story that leaves you altered and changed, for the better.

What’s Not Good: The series of misfortune that befalls Hassan and his father sometimes seem so incredible. I found it hard to accept that so many bad things could happen to good people. But that is life, perhaps. It’s always the poor who suffer the most.

20th-century-ghosts20th Century Ghosts is a collection of short stories by Joe Hill, whose real identity is Joseph Hillstrom King – son of the horror-meister, Stephen King. My wife got this book for me as a Valentine’s Day gift because I’d been harping on about how good the reviews were. I quickly finished the other books I’d started on to finally get to this one.

But was I in for a major disappointment. 2 days into the book (197 pages out of 383), I decided to call it quits. There was nothing scary about it, some of the stories just went on and on without a clear plot, had abrupt endings and worst of all, lots of baseball talk that bored me to death. I could not find the slightest tinge of horror in this book. Perhaps I had too high an expectation? I doubt it.

There are 14 short stories altogether and of these, I read 5 –

  1. Best New Horror – Spirit of a murdered girl haunts a cinema
  2. Pop Art – Friendship between an inflatable plastic boy and
  3. You’ll Hear the Locusts Sing – Boy turns into an insect and eats his father and best friend.
  4. Abraham’s Boys
  5. Better than Home
  6. The Black Phone – A kidnap victim gets help from the dead through a disconnected telephone.
  7. In the Rundown
  8. The Cape
  9. Last Breath – Alinger and his museum of bottled dying breaths.
  10. Dead-Wood
  11. The Widow’s Breakfast
  12. Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead
  13. My Father’s Mask
  14. Voluntary Committal

I didn’t enjoy this book. Short stories should be plot driven since it’s impossible to build on the characters given the length constraints. But the plots in this book were weak, sometimes plotless .. most of the time it just fizzled briefly like a can of flat soda. So much for the suspense.

joehill_narrowweb__300x3690

Joe Hill

To be fair, I must make clear again that I did not finish this book. Maybe the subsequent stories are better? I don’t know and my experience from reading the first few stories mean I don’t care enough to know. This is my personal opinion of the book. For those of you who are still curious about it, you might be interested to know that this book won several awards – the  Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection, as well as the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection and Best Short Story for “Best New Horror”. Notwithstanding that, 20th Century Ghosts just didn’t cut it for me.

I’ve had no luck finding any good ghost horror novels and would really appreciate if anyone out there could recommend a few to me.

Verdict : 1 out of 5

What’s Good: It’s a collection of short stories, so if it’s painful, it’s only for a while.

What’s Not Good: Stories are dull and flat, not scary at all. Nothing suspenseful about it. A true disappointment despite all the awards and hype.

the-road

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007 and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2006. It was also adapted into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the Man and Boy, respectively. Oprah’s Book Club picked this book as one of its selections for 2007. McCarthy is also the author of other notable titles such as Blood Meridian, Suttree, The Border Trilogy and No Country for Old Men.

(Below is an excerpt of my book review for The Road which appears in full at Culturazzi Cognoscente Club. Click here for the rest of the review.)

Cormac McCarthy’s tale of a post-apocalyptic America opens on a road where a father and his son trudge along pushing a shopping trolley filled with their earthly belongings in a world all but destroyed, where the dying land is burnt black, forests defoliated and ashened, the sky perpetually gray. It is always cold, dark, damp and gloomy.  There is nothing beautiful about the rain falling in this story because it only adds to the prevailing sense of sorrow that weighs heavier and heavier as the story unravels.

But despite the foreboding about what lays ahead on the road … and what lurks behind, there is still light and hope in the strong affection and bond between father and son, or Man and Boy as they are simply called in the book. One being the other’s sole reason to fight and continue living, or as McCarthy wrote it – each the other’s world entire. The boy has no mother. She saw no hope in living after the cataclysmic event and chose to commit suicide. It is hard not to be touched by the love the father has for the son; how he wills himself to survive for the son, and how the son gives him hope that maybe the next day will be different.

(Click here for the rest of the review)

Verdict : 4.5 out of 5

What’s Good: A profound story of survival against all odds and the enduring bond between father and child. Not a thick novel, that is easy to read but too fast to finish. Believe me, you’ll be torn between wanting to know what’s on the next page and not wanting to finish it so soon.

What’s Not Good: Not long enough, basically. I can’t think of anything else that’s not to like about this one.

when-ghosrs-speak-by-mary-ann-winkowskiI’ve always been fascinated by books on the paranormal – spirit hauntings especially. I am reluctant to say this but I have had my share of personal experiences with ethereal entities; all non-threatening thus far, thank God. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that these entities are just souls that are either lost or trapped for some reason on earth, unable or unwilling to go where they are supposed to go.

Mary Ann Winkowski’s book confirmed most of what I thought and gave me a better insight into the world of ghosts. In case you are not familiar with her, Winkowski is the consultant to CBS’ Ghost Whisperer series and also works closely with the FBI on cold case files solving murder mysteries. She has a proven track record and there is definitely nothing bogus or ‘wacky’ about her.

Her ability to see and communicate with ghosts is something she has had since her early childhood, nurtured and honed by her grandmother, who also had the same gift. In When Ghosts Speak, Winkowski describes what a typical encounter is like and explains what she does to help these souls of departed people some of whom have lingered on on earth for centuries.

A few incidents are memorable, such as the ones about the spirits of children who choose to stay on earth. For example in a fire where a whole family is killed, the spirit of one of the children killed had seen her parents and siblings walk into a light but she was scared of following them because of a fear that she might be told off by her parents for not listening to them earlier when all were trying to get out of the burning house. So the child stayed in the home for a while, playing (appearing as an imaginary friend) with the children of new families that moved in and slowly, venturing out of the house and following other children to their homes.

One thing I learned from this book is that spirits are not tied to a certain location or house. Though some are attached to their earthly belongings (like cars and antiques), following these items to the homes of their new owners to make sure they are properly taken care of, some spirits can move around to different homes and families seeking energy. Ghosts sometimes provoke us by doing mischief, hiding things or instigating arguments in the house so that the release of our anger or frustration can be a source of energy to them.

Winkowski explains how she conjures up a white light that she encourages these spirits to walk into so that they can go to the other side. She has met the spirits of accident victims and even a serial killer. Regardless of who they are, Winkowski gives them the chance to go to the other side. As she says in the book, it is not for her to judge them. Her job is merely to help them move on to where they are supposed to go. What awaits them on the other side, whether it be purgatory or judgment, is something she leaves to God.

She also shares with us ways of protecting ourselves against evil entities and ways to avoid attracting them into following you home. All these are both entertaining and informative though some parts are a bit repetitive. I didn’t mind the repetition though and quite enjoyed the stories of her encounters. There are some photographs also in the book of these entities and of Winkowski’s family and the people she works with.

I have been reading and collecting books on the paranormal since childhood; eager to read them but at the same dreading the information later at night when my mind starts to revisit the pages and images. But as you can see, I continue to collect these books and I continue, as I did with When Ghosts Speak,  to enjoy reading them. Winknowski’s writing is very conversational and will keep you entranced and amused throughout. It is one of the better books on spirit encounters that I have had the good fortune of coming across. Well worth reading!

Verdict : 4 out of 5

What’s Good: Easy to read conversational style of writing. Engaging and informative. If you believe in ghosts and love books on the paranormal, then you will want to read this.

What’s Not Good: Winkowski tends to be repetitive with some stories.

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(This is an excerpt of my book review written for Culturazzi Cognoscente Club with whom I am currently collaborating and contributing to. The full review may be read by clicking on this link.)

I finished reading this book many weeks ago but held off writing a review about it in order that time and some space in between would enable me to look at the story more objectively. By this, I mean to be more detached from the characters of the book and to understand the circumstances and events in their proper historical context.

The Reader is written by German judge and law professor, Bernhard Schlink. It was published in German in 1995 and translated into English in 1997. In 1999 it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, not to mention garnering various other literary awards.

One can read this book as a story of a love affair set in post-war Germany between a 15 year old boy and a  woman twice his age (whose illiteracy she tries to keep secret – at whatever cost), who is later exposed as an SS guard during the Second World War.

Or one can read it and see the tale as something deeper than mere romance; that the romance and the characters of the boy and woman, Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz, respectively, as emblematic of two generations of Germans dealing with the issues of guilt and remorse stemming from their country’s role as lead perpetrator of the Jewish Holocaust. And Hanna’s illiteracy as synonymous with their denial and/or ignorance of the crimes committed by many in the name of the State.

(Read the rest of the review here)

notimeforgoodbyeEver wondered what it would be like to have an argument with your parents, tell them you wished they were dead, go to bed and wake up the next morning to discover that you are all alone in your house with everyone else all missing?

This is the plot for No Time for Goodbye in which 15 year old Cynthia Bigge wakes up one morning to see her parents Clayton and Patricia and her younger brother, Todd and the family cars all gone. Missing without a trace. No note left behind. No signs of anything. Only an unsolvable case closed by the police. A cold case file.

Fast forward to 25 years later and the story picks up again, this time narrated by Terry Archer as he watches a TV crew taping his wife Cynthia returning to her old home and describing that fateful night. It is a reality show and Cynthia has agreed to take part in it with hopes that someone out there watching the show might know something about the case and come forward with information that may give the police a break in their dead-end investigation.

The show airs and weeks go by … a few crank calls and one bogus psychic – but still no new leads. The Archers just about give up hoping when a black Fedora belonging to Clayton Bigge shows up one day on the kitchen table in the Archers’ home. And then the phone call and later a note, typewritten using Terry’s own typewriter that is kept in his study at home.

Someone out there knows everything and is slowly stripping away the layers of mystery, leading the Archers closer to solving the disappearance of Cynthia’s family but not before creating tension between husband and wife, and the deaths of Cynthia’s aunt, Tess and Denton Abagnall, the private investigator the Archers hire to try and piece together the puzzle.

I wont spoil this book for those of you who have not read it and plan on getting it. Suffice to say, it all starts with Clayton Bigge and ends with Clayton Sloan.

What do I think of this book? Okay – let’s start with the good things first. It’s easy to read, Barclay’s style of writing is direct, to the point, raw at times and unpretentious. He conveys the feeling of desperation and moments of insanity that hounds Cynthia well, and overall, achieves in producing a plot that is well paced, as it walks and then runs towards its climatic ending. In short, you’ll want to keep turning the pages over to know what happens next.

As for the not so good points, I must point out that at times, the plot is almost incredible and beyond belief especially the secret shared between Rolly Carruthers and Clayton Bigge, how each man’s need to keep one secret led to so many other things.

I hope this is enough to make you want to read it because I do think this is a readable book though not worth shouting about. Out of 10, (10 being excellent), I would give this one a 6 or 7. Readable, enjoyable – makes the time pass. And oh, the ending almost brought tears to my eyes – but hey, that’s just the sentimental side of me talking.

twan_gift_of_rain_ukprf_page_1Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel is a tale about the bonds of friendship and family, set amidst Penang Island in the turbulent years leading up to and after the Second World War. The story is told from the point of view of the protagonist, Philip Khoo-Hutton, a man in his twilight years who seeks to understand the events of his youth and his role in bringing them about. As he reminisces to a friend, the story unfolds.

(As part of my online collaboration with Culturazzi Cognoscente Club, the rest of my review can be read here.)

This is a clip from the audition stage of “Bulgarian Idol”. This Idol wannabe chooses Mariah Carey’s ‘Ken Lee’. You know, the English version.

Oh, and to think I’m stressed about getting the lyrics wrong when I sing.

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