The Secret Sanctuary by Stephen Alter

The Secret Sanctuary by Stephen Alter Title: The Secret Sanctuary
Author: Stephen Alter
Publisher: Puffin Books
ISBN: 9780143333982
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Pages: 136
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

It is not easy to write children’s books. It is definitely not easy to write a children’s book on nature and the environment. Stephen Alter does it though and it seems while reading it, that he has written it also with as much ease. There is a lot of research done to write this book, given it is a mix of both fantasy and nature (took you by surprise, didn’t it? It sure had me all wondering about the plot) and interspersed is almost a quick lesson in nature for young readers.

“The Secret Sanctuary” is about three children who are lost in the jungle and before they know it, the jungle is magical and full of surprises and shocks at every turn for them. The book is extremely readable for young readers, between the ages of six to ten and quite riveting too.

The book is more than about just three children who are lost. It is about the preservation of nature and how as humans we tend to overlook and ignore it – that it has no choice but to appear only when seen through new eyes.

“The Secret Sanctuary” is a delight to read. I was majorly disappointed when it ended so soon. I wish it had gone on longer. At the same time, I also felt that may be the book could have had more dialogues.

The descriptions though are fascinating – whether it is about sleeping in a bear’s cave or listening to a concert at dawn which is not orchestrated by humans or whether it is about going in search of a rare mountain quail, Mr. Alter does a splendid job of making you want to lose yourself in his idyllic world and make you want to be a part of it.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith Title: The Cuckoo’s Calling
Author: Robert Galbraith
Series: Cormoran Strike – Book 1
Publisher: Mullholland Books
ISBN: 978-0316206853
Genre: Suspense, Detective, Crime
Pages: 464
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

With great trepidation, I picked up “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Gailbraith. There was already so much written and said about it almost two years ago, that I did not even know if I wanted to read it or not. I am glad that I picked it up. Please do not even compare it to the Harry Potter series. You just cannot. May be that is why J.K. Rowling had to change her identity and write this series and once the identity was out, well then the critics had their field day- both good and bad.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is the first in the Cormoran Strike (the name of the detective) series and while the third one is just out, there are more lined up. I don’t know how many though. All I can tell you is that the book is something else for sure and I cannot wait to read the second and the third installments.

What is the first book about?

Of course, at the heart of the book is the Private Detective Cormoran Strike – the ex-army guy with his own complicated personal life and skeletons in the closet, his business which is drying up, and of course he had to have a messy break-up with his fiancée.
So everything is downhill till Robin a temp arrives from the Temp Agency and ends up becoming a permanent secretary/assistant of sorts and then a case lands up on his doorstep which he just cannot refuse. It is a high-profile case – that of a supermodel – falling to death from her third-floor Mayfair apartment and her brother suspects foul play and hires Cormoran to investigate further. This in short is the gist. It is like any other hard-boiled detective novel you might say. So what makes it any different?

I guess it is the writing for sure but it is also the noir element that runs through the book, given it is set in London and also given how the characters are all people with shades of grey as it should be in a book like this. I instantly took a shine to Cormoran and the wry humour that prevailed throughout. The working class of London is also very well depicted, without leaning to any social or political context. The lives of people – both the detectives and the suspects are so detailed that it is a joy to read the book and know more about them.

“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is the kind of book that cannot be read in one sitting. It needs to be cherished and savoured and not read in one go. At least I wasn’t able to. Cormoran Strike is a detective that will grow on you as he did on me and I cannot wait to read The Silkworm.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling (English)

Fables: Volume 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham ; Illustrated by James Jean and Alex Maleev

Fables - Volume 1 - Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham Title: Fables: Volume 1: Legends in Exile
Author: Bill Willingham
Illustrated by: James Jean and Alex Maleev
Publisher: DC Comics
ISBN: 9781401237554
Genre: Comics, Graphic Novels, Fantasy
Pages: 144
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

Anything to do with fairy tales and I am sold hook, line and sinker. There is not much needed for me then to read the book or series or graphic novel, no matter how good or bad it is. I am a sucker for fairy tales and more so their spin-offs.

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Bill Willingham’s “Fables” was always on my to-be-read list, in fact so much so that I had read four volumes and left it at that. I wonder why though. May be I was not ready for the series then. It happens to the best of readers – you aren’t just ready for the book at a point and then when you are, you just cannot stop reading it.

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The storyline of “Fables” in the broad sense is this: Fairy-tale characters have been ousted from their lands by an entity known as the Adversary, and they are therefore forced into exile. Some of them live in New York City, hiding their true selves from the world. They own a secret society called Fabletown.

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In the first volume, we learn about the murder of Rose Red, Snow White’s sister and how the big bad wolf known as Bigby solves the case.

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I loved the way how the old tales were revisited and how you can see these characters with a lot of shades of grey. For instance, Snow White has been divorced from Prince Charming and how Bluebeard is trying very hard to mend his ways but no one trusts him.

More so, the illustrations are fantastically done, keeping in mind the intricacy of each scene and the fairy tale reference or context. I highly recommend this series and already about to finish the second volume. One thing is for sure that you cannot look at fairy tales and their characters the same way after reading this series.

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Fables Vol. 1: Legends in Exile (New Edition)

Matilda’s Cat by Emily Gravett

Matilda's Cat by Emily Gravett Title: Matilda’s Cat
Author: Emily Gravett
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books
ISBN: 9781447218623
Genre: Picture Books, Children’s Books
Pages: 32
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I was introduced to Emily Gravett’s books by a dear friend and since then I have not stopped reading them. I know I am not a child, but who said children’s books are meant just for children? Picture books are in fact I think meant more for adults who want to escape the drudgery of daily living and hide in a book or a couple of books that make them smile and grin at the end of it all.

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Children’s books are therapeutic at best and that is why I love them so much. “Matilda’s Cat” by Emily Gravett is but of course about Matilda and her cat and the relationship they share. It is about Matilda’s Cat who doesn’t like to do things that Matilda does, but there is a funny and lovely twist to the tale at the end that will make your heart burst with joy.

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The book has lovely illustrations and just goes to show how picture books can be brought to life. “Matilda’s Cat” is the sort of book that can be dipped into anytime and of course it won’t take you too much time to read it, but you will keep going back to it again and again like I have done since the past two days. It is a treat you do not want to miss out on.

Koolaids by Rabih Alameddine

Koolaids by Rabih Alameddine Title: Koolaids
Author: Rabih Alameddine
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802124142
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Personal
Rating: 5/5

When you write a book about AIDS and what it brings in its wake, is not an easy task for sure. Rabih Alameddine jumped to the scene and was well-known right after “An Unnecessary Woman”. The book just jumped at readers and they I think too notice of him then. Of course before that, there was “Koolaids” and some more books that he had written but this discussion is about “Koolaids”.

I wonder if being sane means disregarding the chaos that is life, pretending only an infinitesimal segment of it is reality.

To me reading “Koolaids” was a harrowing experience. Why? Because I am gay and I didn’t know how to react to a book on AIDS, and what it takes in its wake. I cannot for the life of me imagine something like this happening to me or my loved ones, so whenever I read something like this, I am completely overwhelmed by it.

Death comes in many shapes and sizes, but it always comes. No one escapes the little tag on the big toe. The four horsemen approach. The rider on the red horse says, “This good and faithful servant is ready. He knoweth war.” The rider on the black horse says, “This good and faithful servant is ready. He knoweth plague.” The rider on the pale horse says, “This good and faithful servant is ready. He knoweth death.” The rider on the white horse says, “Fuck this good and faithful servant. He is a non-Christian homosexual, for God’s sake. You brought me all the way out here for a fucking fag, a heathen. I didn’t die for this dingbat’s sins.” The irascible rider on the white horse leads the other three lemmings away. The hospital bed hurts my back.

“Koolaids” is about men who love men, men who suffer by loving men and men who cope as their worlds fall apart and changes around them. It is a fresh new voice (then when the book released) and is very different from his other books. It details the AIDS epidemic through the 80s and the 90s and with that the angle of the Lebanese Civil War that accounts for the book.

The characters are plenty – they love and dream in fragments. As a reader, I just gave in to the book without trying to make much of it in the first fifty pages and when I started, I was too entranced by the language and over all plot to care about the writing.

“Koolaids” is what it is – a gritty and real book on what it takes to go on living in the face of death and how to sometimes just give in, knowing that nothing can be done now. It is stories such as these that deeply affect us and our lives.

Beloved Dog by Maira Kalman

Beloved Dog by Maira Kalman Title: Beloved Dog
Author: Maira Kalman
Publisher: Penguin Press
ISBN: 9781594205941
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Dogs have always been very integral to my existence. From being scared of them to loving them unconditionally, life has come a long way. They are there, always, playing a role in some way or the other, dispensing wisdom in their own way and ensuring that they never let you know. Kalman picks on these qualities of dogs and talks about them through illustrations, her life, the dogs she has encountered and how they have featured in almost every book of hers.

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“Beloved Dog” is a dedication to our canine friends all over the world. The book is of course as usual beautiful illustrated and that is what makes it so special are her personal thoughts on dogs and how she got about getting one even though she had grown up getting scared of them.

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It all started when her husband passed away and a dog came into their lives (her children and hers) and changed everything for them. The book is a mirror of who we really are and who we become when we love our dogs unconditionally. There are so many lessons in here for all of us.

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The book is essentially New York and how we think and feel with them even more than people. If you have ever had a pet or have one, then you know this book, you know it inside out. There are poignant layers of philosophy in the book that are almost cautiously hidden by the beautiful illustrations.

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“Beloved Dog” is all about the love you have for your pet, and when the pet becomes a lot more than just a four-legged creature. Dogs do not go anywhere, even after they have gone in the physical sense, they linger, forever reminding you that it is so important to have them in your life.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter Title: Grief is the Thing with Feathers
Author: Max Porter
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571323760
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Grief – A word that we are most afraid of encountering in our lives. A word that has the capacity to change everything and turn life on its head and shake your being to the core. We all experience it, whether we like it or not. We have no choice in this regard. Life does not give us any choices. I guess after happiness, which we also share quite hesitatingly, grief comes close second as an emotion that is not shared. We keep it within and maybe that is when we need to be pushed to let it all out and get over it (so to say) and move on with life.

Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.

It is just that it kicks you senseless, this grief I mean. It will not let you be as well. I remember how I felt when my father passed away in 2001. Fourteen years seems to be a very long time and it probably is and yet grief is at the core of it all, mixed with regrets and prematurely died promises and hopes that we had as a family. So when I read, “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” I could not stop wondering about our lives in that phase from the time it happened to the time we moved on (did we?) and perhaps that’s why this debut by Max Porter struck such a chord with me.

Loss and pain in the world is unimaginable but I want them to try.

“Grief is a Thing with Feathers” is a book which can be read by everyone and that is what I think every book aims to be – to be read by everyone in the long run, for people to connect with it, for people to not leave it, for people to also wonder why did it end so soon (which happens to be more often than not when I read books such as this one – which is so moving) and of course for people to reread it.

Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.

The book is about the death of a mother and how the husband and two boys come to terms with her death. It is not as easy as it sounds. Life never is and that is the beauty of this book. They need something to help them cope – an external resource and that comes in the form of a giant Crow (fable-like, mythical quality, whatever you may call it, but it helps them live day to day), who transforms their lives inside out and will only leave once the healing is complete.

Grieving is something you’re still doing, and something you don’t need a crow for.

Max Porter’s writing shines on almost every single page. The writing style and composition of the book is varied – part prose, part rhyme and part poetry, it is a meditation on living and dying and the void called grief, thrown right in-between these two. My only grouse with the book was the crow’s voice at times, because I just could not understand that and that voice happened to be most crucial in the book. Well, having said that the story on its own is so strong that you cannot help but turn the pages, one after the other.

The narrative is not straight-forward and that is what sets this book apart from the regular ones written on the subject of death and grieving. There are silences in the book that speak to the reader and make him or her their own. The book is highly emotional but does not at any point become sentimental. The three voices in the book are so unique and distinct that even in less than one hundred and fifty pages you start developing fondness for all the characters, including the crow. The dark humour, the moving on pieces right in the end and the way life just comes full circle, whether we want it to or not is beautifully portrayed in these pages. It is a wild and at the same time a tender exploration of grief and above all most reassuring that the void does get filled at some point.

“Grief is a Thing with Feathers” is a sparkling debut which comes to be only once in a while. So I highly recommend that you go out there, pick up this book, read it and while you are reading, let not anyone interrupt the marvelous experience.

Here’s Max Porter reading from the book:

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Grief is the Thing with Feathers