The Saturday eReader: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

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“You make me into someone I couldn’t even imagine. You make me happy, even when you’re awful. I would rather be with you – even the you seem to think is diminished – than anyone else in the world.”

The back cover describes Me Before You as a “heartbreakingly romantic novel”, words that, I have to admit, reel me in more often than I’d like to admit. I’m a sucker for plots starring doomed romance, star-crossed lovers and unrequited love that smells of bitter almonds.

But before I recommend that you download this lovely novel, let me just make it clear that it is not your quintessential romance novel. Not one that keeps you up at night with butterflies in your stomach and has you fancying yourself in the hero and heroine’s shoes, anyway.

Twenty-seven year old Louisa Clark, protagonist and narrator for most of the novel, is a girl who aspires to very little in life. One might even say she aspires to nothing at all given that she’s perfectly content working as a waitress in a café, living with her parents and dating a man she has nothing in common with other than the fact that it’s familiar and comfortable. But when she loses her job at the café and is forced to take up a job as a carer and companion for a man in a wheelchair, she can’t predict how much her view of the world is about to change.

Thirty-five year old Will Traynor had everything going for him – brilliant job, beautiful girlfriend, enviable list of adventures around the world – until a motorbike on a rainy day puts paid to it all. From living the high life to having his bottom wiped for him every day, you understand why he isn’t in the best of spirits confined to the existence of a quadriplegic. He is extremely angry at having to spend what now feels like eternity, living an assisted life which involves bed sores, pneumonia and daily catheter changes.

Having lived like this for two years, Will isn’t keen on sticking around much longer. Enter Louisa, who has six months to change his mind. However, don’t be naïve, expecting miracles or picture perfect endings because this isn’t a story about finding the silver lining or the triumph of true love. Or maybe it is. I don’t know. Debate it over with your book club. To me, it’s about the quality of human life just as much as its value.  Yes, it is about love as well, but it is much more evolved than the ‘girl meets boy’ and ‘love against all odds’ shebang.

Me Before You is a wonderful book that may take you a little more than a weekend to read. It can get a bit slow and at times you’re left wondering where the story might be heading. But honestly, just be patient and see it through because this is one of those rare books that explore human potential as well as limitation.

Don’t read it for the beginning, romance or just to satiate your curiosity on how it ends. Read it for the journey that Louisa and Will embark upon. To see how they discover so much more about themselves and their prospects and capabilities. But more importantly, read it because it tells a beautiful story without getting too preachy, tear jerky or adding conflict just for the sake of it.

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The Saturday eReader: Eleanor & Park

Putting into words how I felt after reading Eleanor & Park is one of the most personal things I have opted to write since The Silence of the Goats. That is why I have avoided it all these months. Even now, as I get ready to write this recommendation, I am trying really hard to control myself from getting overtly lyrical because it is one of the first books in a long time that has moved me so much.

Still, it wouldn’t be fair for me to romanticise it too much because your experience might be completely different. My only concern is that my gushing may ruin the experience for you, as has happened to me many-a-times from reading reviews and recommendations.

Trust me? Read no further and go download this book RIGHT NOW!

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Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: Love in the time of the Walkman and double A batteries

The first thing that runs through Park’s mind when he sees Eleanor is that she looks exactly like the kind of person this would happen to. ‘This’ being getting rejected by every person on the bus who has an empty seat next to them.

Everyone that is, except Park who is most definitely not in love at first sight or even the local do-gooder. Just a social Inbetweener trying to keep the peace.

Also, Rainbow Rowell would have no story if these two teenagers didn’t end up together on that seat of that bus because everything of note to the pain, pleasure and chronic confusion of first love starts right there.

This is probably when I say that this is no ordinary love story, but I won’t. If you recall falling in love with someone at the age of 16, you know it’s immensely ordinary, but that is what makes it extraordinary.

Like the first time Park reaches out and holds Eleanor’s hand and she “disintegrates”, that is one of the most intense, moments in the novel. You forget, in the process of growing up, how intimate early hand holding can be.

Or when Eleanor refuses to borrow Park’s Walkman (it’s set in the 1980s, by the way), instead just emptying out its batteries, and Park goes home and calls his grandmother to tell her that he doesn’t want any presents for his birthday… Just a large supply of double A batteries.

I downloaded Eleanor & Park on a Saturday night with a glass of wine and read it until the early hours of the next morning. I don’t know if it was nostalgia or the wine but I wanted to fall asleep hugging my Kindle that night. It has one of those innocent yet intense first-love stories you just wish was yours, because what makes it so perfect is the knowledge that it will eventually have to end.

Eleanor & Park is a YA novel about young love. But it tells a story that would resonate with audiences across genders (yes, despite all the hand holding) and age groups. It would be one of my top recommendations for anyone looking for a relaxing read that takes you on a wistful journey down… Oh no, I’m gushing, aren’t I?

Anyway, I sincerely hope you will read this book and then return here to share your impressions with me. I would really, really like to know what you think of it!

Fast food vs food that moves fast: Brahmin’s Coffee Bar

We seem to talk about fast food like it’s a bad thing. In some instances it might well be. But look a little closer and you’ll see that there’s a big difference between fast food and food that moves really fast. You only have to visit a South Indian cafe to see why.

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Take Brahmin’s Coffee Bar for instance, where there’s always a hungry crowd to feed but the line moves at the speed of light. In fact, dawdle about at the cashier a minute too long, debating between idli, vada idli and khara bath and you stand to get yelled at. “Move along already! Can’t you see there’s a queue?” shouts the owner who already has change for Rs 500 ready because he just knows the denominations coming his way based on your order the number of people accompanying you.

It’s a bar all right, in the chaos it creates. There are people standing helter skelter, inside the bar and outside on the pavement. There isn’t a chair in sight and the tables, or what look like tables, are merely plastic trays in which to dump your plates and glasses once you’re finished. These too are cleared out frequently to keep up with the volume of diners entering every minute and others queuing up again to place another order.

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The food arrives in an instant. The idlis are soft and still steaming. The vadas are crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The khara bath needs a few seconds to settle down but once it does, it’s filled with flavour, spice and a hint of crunch. The coffee is scalding and there isn’t an inch on which to place it as you blow on your fingers while going for extra helpings of green chutney. Word of advice: take an extra pair of hands just so you can eat comfortably.

Don’t have an extra pair of hands? Use your car’s roof as a table or the cleanest part of the pavement. We got lucky and found a big stone on which we perched. The meal was simple and delicious, the chutney, divine. You can see why there’s a special counter to dole out ladles of extra chutney, free of cost too! The filter coffee had just the right balance of sweet and strong brew with a little milk to take the edge off.

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Fast food isn’t the same as food that moves really fast. The former requires a label to warn you that its contents are ‘hot’. The latter doesn’t need a label. Real food never does.

Does my jugular look juicy in this?

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It got off the most promising start I’ve read in fantasy literature. But just as the plot’s mystery was about to hit a nail biting crescendo, A Discovery of Witches jumped (of its own volition) into a dark, swirling vortex of ‘Does my jugular look juicy in this?’

It’s no secret that I’m attracted to fantasy and magic. So much so that I will pick up any title with a promise of witchy wonder. I would even ignore a friend’s review of the same book – ok, I didn’t read it, but that’s only because I couldn’t take my eyes off the title.

I devoured the first quarter of the book with such hunger I actually forgot to sleep. I sat up at night making notes about how interesting it is that a contemporary book merges magic, science and academia. I absolutely loved the descriptions of alchemy in the research of our protagonist, a highly decorated historian and non-practicing witch, Diana Bishop. I also didn’t mind Mathew Clairmont, a seriously accomplished scientist and vampire whose current passion — he’s had many over his lifespan of 1500 years — is genetics and mutation.

Set in the academic city of Oxford, England the writing is powerful enough to exude the smell of old parchment, rare books and ancient libraries. Our story starts with Diana hearing whispers as she calls up Ashmole 782, a manuscript she wants to refer to for a research paper in alchemy. She opens it to discover that it’s actually a palimpsest, a book from which its old text has been washed away, or hidden in this case by magic and covered with new text. All she needs to do is touch its pages and it will reveal to her its secrets. But as one who has turned her back on witchcraft, she tells herself that she isn’t interested. Also, as a historian, it would be sacrilege to touch so old a scroll lest its pages crumble. She sends the book back without further delay but soon realises that it is an elusive scripture bearing the secrets of how and why vampires, witches and daemons exist. The sudden arrival of hoards of creatures in Oxford within close proximity to her serves as an indication that the book is very much sought after. But, as these things go, it is only Diana who can summon the book because turns out it was bewitched centuries ago to stay hidden, and as one who doesn’t (know how to) practice magic, she is clueless as to how she’s meant to break the spell.

Enter our vampire love interest Mathew who initially wants the book for his own research on genetics and mutation – specifically, those of the first vampires – and finds himself falling in love with her. In typical Twilight style, he takes it upon himself to protect her from other creatures, including fellow witches who are out for blood. She resists, but the frequency at which she is threatened soon convinces her to take his help and eventually fall head over heels in love with him.

The book has the ‘X’ factor which made The Da Vinci Code such a raging success. It has the elements of magic – in an adult capacity of course– that turned Harry Potter into one of the most beloved fantasy series’ of our generation. It’s also poetry in its use of words and back stories that makes certain moments so much more powerful. But most importantly it has magic in its writing as it paints vivid scenes of dark holes with shimmery ghosts and smoke creatures crawling out of bowls.

Where it fails is in its similarities to Twilight and The Vampire Diaries — not in its adaptation (or lack thereof) of vampire lore but in the nature of the characters’ relationshop. Harkness spends too much time trying to paint a stupid love story that really could have been much more powerful had it been unsaid. At the highest point of its mystery and intrigue, Diana receives a photo of her parents mangled bodies from the time when they were murdered years ago. Next thing we know, she’s been whisked off to Mathew’s castle in Sept Tours, France where they spend what seems like a large portion of the book discovering everything it would seem, except witches.

“You think this one’s bad?” my friend Reshma asked me as I vented to her. “You should read the sequels in the All Soul’s Trilogy.”

“No thank you,” I snapped. “I’d much rather take a stake to the heart.”

I want to finish this book. Really I do. I’m curious to uncover Ashmore 782’s power and its connection to the world of magic and creatures. Unfortunately, it isn’t worth cringing through pages and pages of unnecessarily forced butterflies-behind-your-bellybutton romance and vampire-come-save-me scenes to get there. We’ve got plenty of that, thank you very much. Now can we get back to matters of substance?

When Abba was Ill by Adil Hasan – Review

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A photo from When Abba Was Ill by Adil Hasan

There are no words to describe the loss of a parent. Which is probably why photographer Adil Hasan had a go at it through pictures. Here’s my review of When Abba Was Ill by Adil Hasan, published by Nazar Foundation as part of Nazar Photography Monographs, a project that aims to publish photobooks regardless of whether or not they are of commercial interest. The review appeared in Tasveer Journal on March 3, 2013.