Shelf Control #190: Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Agarwal

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Haunting Bombay
Author: Shilpa Agarwal
Published: 2009
Length: 362 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

After her mother’s death crossing the border from Pakistan to India during Partition, baby Pinky was taken in by her grandmother, Maji, the matriarch of the powerful Mittal family. Now thirteen years old, Pinky lives with her grandmother and her uncle’s family in a bungalow on the Malabar Heights in Bombay. While she has never really been accepted by her uncle’s family, she has always had Maji’s love.

One day, as monsoons engulf the city, Pinky opens a mysteriously bolted door, unleashing the ghosts of an infant who drowned shortly before Pinky’s arrival and of the nursemaid who cared for the child. Three generations of the Mittal family must struggle to come to terms with their secrets amidst hidden shame, forbidden love, and a call for absolute sacrifice.

How and when I got it:

When my book group did a secret book swap a few years ago, this was one of the books in my super-fun package. Thank you, book-giver friend of mine!

Why I want to read it:

Well, first of all, it was a gift, and I always feel terrible when I don’t get around to reading gift books. And on top of that, I think it sounds terrific! Between the ghost story and the family saga and the Bombay setting, it seems to have a lot going for it. I really do need to get to this one soon.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
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Have fun!

Audiobook Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

HFJThe Hundred-Foot Journey is the story of Hassan Haji, who travels over the course of the story from his boyhood in Mumbai to the pinnacle of the French culinary world as a Parisian chef and restaurateur. When we first meet Hassan, he is just a boy, growing up in a loud, boisterous Muslim family, with the family’s kitchen and restaurant the center of his world. The tastes and smells of Indian curries and spices are with him from birth, and his large, gregarious father is the heart that keeps them all going at top speed.

But after Hassan’s mother is killed, the family sells the restaurant and spends months traveling through Europe, finally stopping in the small village of Lumiere in the French Alps, when Hassan’s father declares that it’s time to set down new roots. He buys a vacant property and decides to open a new restaurant, Maison Mumbai, and all seems well with the family once more…

Except. Maison Mumbai is located just across the road from La Saule Pleureur, an upscale French inn and restaurant run by the indomitable Madame Mallory, practically an institution in the world of French cuisine. Madame Mallory is outraged by the impertinent Indian family and its noisy, uncouth intrusion into her refined world, and she sets out to make them feel as unwelcome as possible, going so far as to blackmail all the local vegetable and fish purveyors into not selling to the Hajis.

Madame Mallory’s greatest pain, though, comes after eating at Maison Mumbai. Hassan, now a teen-aged boy, is the head cook, and Madame Mallory cannot believe what she’s tasting. To her shock and dismay, she realizes that Hassan has a natural gift, which she describes as the food equivalent of having perfect pitch in music. Finally, Madame Mallory’s jealousy drives her to an act that causes real harm to the Haji family, and in penance and remorse, she asks Hassan’s father to allow Hassan to cross the street — the hundred-foot journey — and become her apprentice. Her greatest desire is to train Hassan in the art of French classical cuisine, and as it turns out, it is Hassan’s greatest wish as well.

All this occurs in roughly the first half of the book. From here, we follow Hassan’s training in Madame Mallory’s kitchen, his eventual departure for Paris, and ultimately the opening of his own restaurant, Le Chien Mechant. Hassan rises through the ranks of the elite chefs of France, a remarkable achievement for someone seen as an outsider.

And… that’s about it.

The book is weirdly anticlimactic, and wasn’t at all what I expected. It has a charming and engaging start, focusing on the Haji family and its eccentricities, especially with the outsized personality of Hassan’s irrepressible father. The conflict in Lumiere between the proper, elegant French restaurant and the noisy Indian restaurant, with its plastic menus and statues of elephants, is a funny, relatable portrait of a culture clash.

But from the moment Hassan moves over to Madame Mallory’s kitchen, the story loses all its steam. The second half of the book feel like a recitation of events, rather than a story. Hassan tells us about where he’s been, what he’s done, what he’s cooked, but it’s all just reporting. It simply does not feel lived in. As Hassan grows older and pursues the success he’s dreamed of, we see him doing it all, but I could not feel it. Even in relating what seems to be the emotional turning point of the second half, Hassan’s friendship with a star chef who is driven to suicide by the impending collapse of his business empire, there’s a lack of emotional connection. I didn’t feel that we got to know Paul particularly well, and while Hassan talks about their friendship, it seems more like listening to someone tell you about an old friend that actually meeting that friend yourself.

The narrator of the audiobook, Neil Shah, does a nice job with Hassan’s first-person narrative, and I loved his depiction of Hassan’s father. The voice for the female characters was not as convincing, bordering on mimicry, especially when putting on a French accent for Madame Mallory.

HFJIn terms of the writing style, I had a problem with the author’s descriptions of the female characters. Madame Mallory is a highly respected French chef in her mid-sixties when we meet her, yet the author persists in describing her as elderly and crone-like — and indeed, he’s not kind to any of the women in the novel. Do we need to know that a woman Hassan briefly dates is thick-thighed? I don’t think so, especially as he doesn’t bother to describe anything else about her. Madame Mallory acts awfully toward the Haji family but ultimately becomes important to Hassan, yet it’s hard to get past the incredibly negative descriptions of her looks that get so much emphasis.

I know The Hundred-Foot Journey was made into a movie (starring Helen Mirren), and I’d still like to see it as a point of comparison, even though I didn’t much care for the book. My impression from what I’ve read about the movie is that it focuses on the first half of Hassan’s story. I only wish the book had had the same focus. Sadly, the second half of the book often seems like a boring slog through lectures on food preparation, the French economy, and the challenges of the restaurant business. Without any drama or personal investment, it’s hard to care much at all about Hassan’s ultimate triumph.

Note: I read/listened to this book after my book group selected it for our March group read. I haven’t yet checked in with the group to see what they thought. For me, this was not one of our more successful picks.

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The details:

Title: The Hundred-Foot Journey
Author: Richard C. Morais
Narrator: Neil Shah
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 2008
Audiobook length: 8 hours, 551 minutes
Printed book length: 272 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Library (Overdrive)

Take A Peek Book Review: Paper Towns

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

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Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Who is the real Margo?

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life—dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues—and they’re for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew…

 

My Thoughts:

Oh, where to start? This was most decidedly a middle-of-the-road, “meh” sort of read for me. On the plus side, John Green is an indisputed talent when it comes to getting inside teen brains and portraying the shifting loyalties and tensions of teen friendships. On the negative side, I have very little tolerance for this type of tale, starring an every-boy main character — decent guy, not too remarkable, not part of the in-crowd — who is drawn to the oh-so-special wild girl, the one who can’t be pinned down, who acts out in crazy ways that are supposed to be a sign of just how special her specialness is.

I enjoyed the scenes of Quentin embarking on a crazy road trip with his best friends — a wild 24-hour drive up the coast on the trail of Margo’s confusing clues, with all sorts of escapades, close calls, and silly/manic rest stop shopping sprees. But… all this is in search of the elusive Margo, who, quite frankly, doesn’t seem to want to be found. And if she did want to be found, she made it next to impossible. I found it pretty hard to believe that the gang managed to decipher the obscure patterns that form a sort of roadmap to her — and further, I had a hard time seeing her all-night adventure with Quentin as something that he’d actually enjoy or go along with.

I loved The Fault in Our Stars and Will Grayson, Will Grayson — but Paper Towns had about the same effect on me as Looking For Alaska. Clearly, books about boy-next-door types falling under the spell of the elusive, magical, tormented, magnetic (etc, etc) wonder girl just don’t work for me.

Note: I picked up the e-book of Paper Towns a couple of years ago, and finally read it this month in preparation for a book group discussion. Who knows? Perhaps the amazing folks in my group will convince me that I missed something!

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The details:

Title: Paper Towns
Author: John Green
Publisher: Speak
Publication date: 2009
Length: 305 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books I’d Love To Read With A Book Club

Top 10 Tuesday new

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is about books we’d like to  read with a book club. I don’t belong to a traditional book club, with face-to-face get-togethers (and a few bottles of wine), although I do have an online group with a monthly book discussion. I’ll write more about why I’m not currently in a book club at another time. For now, I’m going to highlight ten books that I’d love to read with a book club — if only I had one.

For me, the best book club books are ones that generate some controversy or have interesting angles or twists to discuss — or books that are worth reading, but for whatever reason aren’t books that I’m likely to pick up without some outside prompting. So if I had a group to share with, I’d pick:

For in-depth analysis and discussion:

1) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: I know I need to read this eventually, but the one time I started it, I got distracted about midway through and never felt compelled to finish. I’d love to have this as a book group read so that I’d stay on track, as well as having a resource for discussing all of the symbolism and patterns that I might not fully explore on my own.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

2) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorite books of all times, but I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s the only Dickens I’ve read, and I really should fix that. I’ve been talking about reading Great Expectations for years. A book group deadline would definitely help, and I’ve also found that it’s really great to read classics with a group, taking the time to really think about the different elements and not just rushing through for the sake of getting to the end.

Great Expectations

3) The Bone People by Keri Hulme: This is supposed to be THE book to read about New Zealand, and I really want to read it… but I just find it kind of off-putting whenever I actually consider starting it. I think a group discussion would help me focus and would also help me appreciate it more.

Bone People

For the incentive needed to actually read these books:

(It’s not that I’m not interested — I just never seem to be in the mood.)

4) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: I think I’ll read this book eventually, and I even have a copy. I just need some prodding to get started.

We Are All Completely

5) Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin: Or really, anything by Mark Helprin. I’ve read some short stories, but his books are just so huge that they seem daunting. I just need that book group nudge to get going, I think.

Winter's Tale

6) Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich: I’ve read later works by Louise Erdrich, but would like to read some of her earlier books as well. I don’t often make time for older books, so a bit of book group inspiration might be a good push in the right direction.

Love Medicine

7) Enduring Love or Saturday by Ian McEwan: I’ve read a few of his books, and I always feel like I should read more, but I never seem to be in the mood to actually do it.

Enduring Love

8) A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: Another one that feels like an important book to read, but every time I take it out from the library, I end up returning it unread.

Tale for the Time Being

And finally, a couple of choices that I think would just be really fun to read with a group:

9) I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: I’ll read it on my own one of these days, but think it would be fun to have a group to share it with.

I Capture The Castle

And, last but not least…

10) The Harry Potter series! When one of my online book friends mentioned recently that she’d never read the Harry Potter books, I tried really hard to get the group interested in a Harry Potter read-along! I still think it’s a brilliant idea, and I’m going to try again in a few months. I’ve read the series so many times, but I love the thought of reading it all over again with a group of book-loving friends, examining the series from new and different angles, and just basking in the enjoyment of spending time in that world again.

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So what books would you want to read with a book group?

Share your link, and I’ll come check out your list.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider following Bookshelf Fantasies! And don’t forget to check out my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables. Happy reading!

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Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

 

Book Review: Me Before You

me before youI’m a little late to the party here. I know people have been reading (and crying over) Me Before You for a couple of years now. In fact, I’d reached the point where I was hesitant to read it, simply because I’d heard from so many people about all the feels and all the tears caused by this book — and hype is pretty much the enemy of enjoying books, in my opinion.

But thanks to my book group, I finally buckled down to read Me Before You this week… and despite the choked up feeling in the back of my throat that still hasn’t gone away, I’m glad that I did.

Me Before You tells the story of two people who would never have met, had life gone the way they’d expected. Despite coming from the same small town, Louisa and Will could not be more different. Lou grew up in a working class family, where every bit of income matters, and where her super-smart sister was expected to be the first in the family to attend college, until she dropped out to have a baby. Will Traynor is the son of a wealthy family, accustomed to grabbing life and enjoying every moment, whether via corporate takeovers or extreme sports. The only way these two would have met would have been in some cafe, with Lou serving and Will barely looking up to notice the waitress standing by his table.

Yet life can change in an instant. Lou is informed by the owner of the cafe where she’s worked for years that he’s shutting the doors due to a slump in business, and Lou desperately seeks a new job, knowing that her parents count on her pay to keep the household running. But there’s nothing available for a 27-year-old with little education and few skills, other than a job in a chicken plant or working as a pole dancer. Finally, one more opportunity is presented, working as a carer for a quadriplegic. Despite having no relevant experience, Lou is hired to provide companionship and distraction — and meets Will, whose normal life was snatched away from him two years earlier on a rainy day in London in a freak motorcycle accident.

Will is mean, sarcastic, sullen, and withdrawn, and wants to be left alone. Lou is petrified that she’ll screw up, worried that she’ll lose the only decent-paying job she was able to find, and intimidated both by the wealthy Traynor family and by the silent man in the wheelchair who most emphatically does not seem to want her around. But bit by bit, Louisa, with her wildly colored clothes and ability to say just the wrong thing, starts to crack Will’s shell. She actually makes him laugh, and Will for his part seems to see Lou as a challenge: He’s determined that this small-town girl who’s never gone anywhere or done anything should try new things and expand her horizons. But Lou has set herself a challenge as well: To make Will realize that his life isn’t over, and that there’s still joy and hope for him in this world.

As we (and Louisa) discover early on, there’s a reason that Lou was only hired for a six-month assignment: Will has decided to die via Dignitas, a Swiss clinic offering assisted suicide services. He’s promised his parents to give them six months before proceeding, and in desperation, Will’s mother has hired Lou, hoping that her awkward yet charming demeanor and colorful personality will pull Will out of his despair the way the love of his family hasn’t been able to.

I won’t discuss the plot any further, but suffice it to say, it’s a doozy. It’s not all drama and tears, though. Louisa and Will are both smart and funny, and their interludes are full of laughter and awkward, silly moments. Lou is determined to make Will want to live, and plans a series of misbegotten outings, most of which end in disaster. Will, for his part, forces Lou to spread her wings, through little moments like watching her first subtitled movies or going to the symphony, ordering books from Amazon for her to read, or forcing her to read the newspaper every day so she can debate current issues with him.

Will’s parents are not the most sympathetic people in the world, but I couldn’t help feeling their pain, and while they seem cold and stand-offish at first, through Lou’s eyes we come to see the nightmare of these people who so desperately want to help their son. There are other memorable and wonderful supporting characters, especially Will’s nurse Nathan and Lou’s sister Treena. Lou’s clueless and self-centered boyfriend Patrick, who is so obsessed with triathlons and his fitness routine that he doesn’t see Lou’s needs or feelings, is a comically obnoxious yet cleverly written character. Lou’s parents, who come to play an important role as she makes more dramatic decisions about her intentions toward Will, are equally impressive, as the author portrays them with a convincing sense of heart and history.

But ultimately, this is the story of Lou and Will — how they change each other, and whether they can challenge each other to think differently, and perhaps to feel in new and unexpected ways. A few times, I was sure I knew exactly where this story was going, and yet I ended up surprised by the dramatic developments, the emotional depth, and the final twists of the story.

Because I’d been warned over and over again that I’d cry, naturally, I didn’t. But I did find it a little tough to breathe or talk by the time I got to the last 100 pages or so… and if I hadn’t been told so emphatically to expect tears, then I probably would have ended up a big, soggy mess.

Jojo Moyes is a gifted writer who has a beautiful way with words. She takes ordinary people and conveys the beauty and sadness of their lives and relationships. In all of the books by this author that I’ve read so far, I’ve seen gorgeously drawn love stories, evocative romances, and edge-of-your-seat suspense and dilemmas. The characters in her books feel like real people, and the skill with which she draws us in and makes us care is remarkable.

I’ve read a total of four books by Jojo Moyes by this point, and I’m eager both to explore her earlier works and to read anything new that she writes from this point forward. Meanwhile, my only complaint is that my book group discussion doesn’t start for several more days, and I just can’t wait to talk about Me Before You!

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Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of other books by Jojo Moyes:
The Girl You Left Behind
One Plus One
The Ship of Brides

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The details:

Title: Me Before You
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books/ Viking
Publication date: December 31, 2012
Length: 369 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased