Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I love stories which read like a love song dedicated to the everydayness of our lives. There’s something about that amplification of the extraordinariness in the ordinary—details that we take for granted, details that our gaze barely manages to register—that speaks to me in a way that nothing else can. I’m also a sucker for stories that focus on the indomitability of the human spirit, no matter the odds. Station Eleven is basically woven out of the warp and weft of these two strands, and so it’s no surprise that I really, really liked it.

A deadly, fast-acting flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population right at the start of the story. It’s a testimony to Mandel’s writing that the build-up to this inevitable, fast-approaching doom though devoid of any panicked scenes of chaos still manages to be completely chilling:

The conversation in Spanish went on in the nearby darkness. The shops still shone on the horizon; there was still no breeze. It was morning in New York City. She imagined Clark hanging up the receiver in his office in Manhattan. This was during the final month of the era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth.

Civilization as we know it is “brutally interrupted,” and is reduced to a barebones version of itself. Time flows back and the world becomes what it used to be before technology and industrialization convened to shape it in its currently recognizable form.

station eleven emily st john mandelWoven through this narrative of a residual humanity—that one would assume would be focused on survival rather than going about brazenly proclaiming “Because survival is insufficient”—is the portrait of lives before the fall. The fulcrum of these lives is an aging actor, Arthur Leander, who dies of a heart-attack in the very first pages of the book. The crossing over of these lives—their interconnectedness—and the way Arthur Leander himself is at the center of all these connections is one of my favorite parts about this book. (And for the record, I guessed correctly—the very first time I might add—the identity of the prophet).

The moving in and out of the pre-fall world and the post-fall world made reading Station Eleven a dreamlike experience. The act of looking at the current world through Mandel’s post apocalyptic lens, and the immediacy of this post apocalyptic world—just 20 years from an unknown current date—lent a poignancy to the story which wasn’t necessarily sad but was more akin to suddenly finding yourself becoming a spectator in your own life, and feeling like you’ve become a sort of voyeur even though you once knew everything intimately.

You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light. You leave your garbage in bags on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place. When you’re in danger, you call for the police. Hot water pours from faucets. Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone. All of the information in the world is on the Internet, and the Internet is all around you, drifting through the air like pollen on a summer breeze. There is money, slips of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth.

I don’t think I got attached to any specific character in the story but the writing and the wanting-to-know-how-it-all-comes-together was compelling enough to keep me reading.

[The following section might be slightly spoiler-y so just wanted to insert this here]

One last aspect that I want to mention was the way that the prophet’s character was portrayed towards the end. It would have been very easy to cast him as a raving lunatic who should be destroyed at all costs. That Mandel gives him a very understated backstory, and that the words “We long only to go home . . . We dream of sunlight, we dream of walking on earth” are central to the scene, and that these words come from the “Station Eleven” comic made me like Station Eleven a little bit more.

End of could-be spoilery-y section

I’ll end with another bit that spoke to me:

Toronto was falling silent. Every morning the quiet was deeper, the perpetual hum of the city fading away.

. . .

On silent afternoons in his brother’s apartment, Jeevan found himself thinking about human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. No one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no one removes fallen trees from electrical lines.

Mary Balogh, An Unlikely Duchess & A Promise of Spring

I want to talk about Mary Balogh! I finished An Unlikely Duchess and ooh, I just loved it!

Before delving into An Unlikely Duchess though I quickly want to mention the three other Mary Baloghs that I’ve read and enjoyed in the recent past: A Christmas Bride, The Temporary Wife and A Promise of Spring.

Oh reader! I think I have found my new favorite regency romance author!

(I’m pretty sure I’ve read some of Miss Balogh’s recent works too (I think it might be from the Simply series) but either I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for them or they didn’t hit the sweet spot in the way that her earlier books seem to be doing. I want to go hunt up all her old books now!)

The number one thing that stands out for me across all these four stories is how different their protagonists are from each other! As a lover of historical romance who’s become weary of the sameness that pervades the genre, Balogh’s earlier books seem like a breath of fresh air. Her characters have a story that is uniquely theirs.

Mary Balogh A Promise of SpringI want to talk a little bit about A Promise of Spring which features a heroine who is ten years older than the hero. It’s a marriage of convenience trope and one that is excellently executed (and since this was the third marriage of convenience trope that I read from Balogh I suspect it’s a favorite of hers).

The hero was a friend of the heroine’s brother whose death has left our heroine destitute. Right in the beginning the hero, “who commanded respect entirely through the kindliness and integrity of his character,” realizes that here was a woman “whom, belatedly, he wished to know.” There’s something about that. . . lack of a martyr-ness and “goodliness” despite the offer he makes that made me warm up to him right away.

The heroine is really well rendered. We come to know that she is one who likes to keep herself emotionally aloof from those around her. She has reasons for being and doing so. The interactions that Balogh makes us privy to between the heroine and her family with whom she’s had a fractious past rang true.

That the trajectory of this marriage of convenience mirrors the path that the heroine takes as she comes to terms with who she was, and who she has become is one of my favorite parts about the book. I just love when stories show so clearly that while external circumstances play a role in the shaping of who we are, the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are are equally important too.

Here’s one of my favorite bits from the story:

Marriage was a living, dynamic relationship that must keep growing if it was to survive. They would have to want to be happy if they were to be so.

. . .

There were no certainties when one was married. Because, however close one became to another person, one never became that person.

Ahhhh. Yes, yes, and yes. It’s such a good feeling to read a story from an author who not only understands this but also incorporates it into in her story.

Ok, onto An Unlikely Duchess which is a completely different beast from A Promise of Spring!

An Unlikely Duchess Mary BaloghIn An Unlikely Duchess we have a hero—a duke—of a middling face and physique. Mr. Paul Villiers, Duke of Mitford, is a paragon of propriety and decorum who “had ever been intimate” with only one woman and that too an affair “conducted so discreetly that it was doubtful many people even knew about it.” Like with marriage of convenience, Balogh does “beta” heroes really, really well too.

Villiers is on his way to offer for our heroine, Josephine Middleton, who is perhaps the most brainless heroine I have ever had the good fortune to read about. Normally I would be up in arms about a female being characterized and referred to as brainless again, and again. But in this case—I join the chorus of characters in calling out Jo as incapable of using her head! In my defense, our heroine’s displays of brainlessness lead to such hilarious capers that I couldn’t help being glad that she was who she was!

At the very start of the story she declares, “I can’t marry this duke . . . A duke! . . . A duke, Sukey. Can you honestly see me marrying a duke? . . . I can’t marry a duke.” The marriage has been arranged by the duke’s family who are laboring under the misapprehension that our heroine is an upstanding young lady who crosses all her t-s and dots all her i-s.

Our unsure hero intercepts our heroine on his way to her home while she’s in the middle of extricating herself from the clutches of an evil villain who was supposed to help her extricate herself from the clutches of the duke in the first place. Yes, dear reader, the story stars a villain too—one who  unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the reader, is brainless too! He doesn’t realize Josephine’s true mettle. Because while she may be lacking in sense, she’s full of sensibility! And spunk! And a joie de vivre which was surprisingly fun to read about.

The poor duke being the actual upstanding citizen in this farce offers to help our heroine recover the jewels that she discovers have been stolen by the villainous personage, and as you can imagine, hilarity and romance ensue! It’s a romance of the very unobtrusive variety, the kind where the fact that two people are falling in love is announced not by trumpets or choruses but by the kind of small observations that you know two people who only have eyes for each other would notice:

Mr. Villiers looked surprised. He also looked very nice indeed, with his curls all about his face and down over the collar of his coat. He had brushed them upstairs in their room, but really he was wasting his time doing so. His hair, thank goodness, did what it wanted to do.

Or when our hero realizes that despite all his notions of propriety he still hasn’t returned our heroine back to the safety of her family:

“I think,” the Duke of Mitford said mildly, “I am a very mad gentleman, ma’am.”

Oh there is no end to the scenes which set me laughing. I don’t want to list them here—I would rather you try getting hold of a copy of the book and read it for yourself! I can say with some confidence that this is most likely going to become one of my all time favorite regency romances! It is THAT good!

Patricia Wrede, Mairelon The Magician & The Magician’s Ward

I thoroughly enjoyed Patricia Wrede’s Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot series when I read it a couple of years ago. So recently when I was in the mood for some comfort reading, I decided to hunt down some more of her books.

The Magician duology features the titular magician, Mairelon, and Kim, a street urchin, and a thief who ends up accompanying Mairelon on his journey at the start of the first book. The books are written in third person and told mostly from Kim’s point of view.

mairelon the magician patricia wredeReading Mairelon The Magician, the first in the series, I realized that one of the reasons I enjoy Wrede so much is because of her world-building. And I’m not referring to the magical elements in her stories.

I’ve normally seen the words world-building used in the context of fantasies but I’ve come to think of “world-building” as a tool that every author can wield, to some extent or the other.

The world-building in fantasies is obvious and more often than not consists of building literally a new world for the story to inhabit and exist in. But the world-building aspect need not necessarily be confined to “fantastical elements” in a story.

For instance, earlier this year I read Betty Neels for the first time ever, and it struck me that Neels’s use of certain elements—such as the details of the food, or the specifics of the décor, and the furnishings—is distinctive enough across all her stories to stand out as rudiments central to the Neelsian “world.”

In Wrede’s case one of the tools she uses very effectively is the way Kim speaks (and by extension, the words in which her thoughts are conveyed to us, the readers). To be honest, I have no idea whether people from the streets of London really spoke this way in the early part of the 19th century. Or maybe Wrede just made it all up? The colorfulness and disparateness of Kim’s speech is powerful enough to hasten the sense of being sucked into another world.

“Why not?” Kim said indignantly. “Anyone as meets you can see you’re a regular swell, and it queers me what your lay is. Bilking the culls in the markets ain’t work for a gentry cove, and you ain’t told me nothin’. I got reason for wonderin’.”

~ Mairelon The Magician

“Don’t go pitching me no gammon. You ain’t heard near enough, acos I’ll lay you a monkey the gentry-mort ain’t told you I was on the sharping lay afore Mairelon took a fancy to adopt me.”

~ The Magician’s Ward

As you can make out from the above, Kim gets adopted by Mairelon as his ward at the end of the first book. And at the end of the second book, they end up engaged. I was very interested in seeing how Wrede would show this change in their relationship given that in the first book they come off as a gentleman, and his page-in-training with nary a whiff of romance.

the magician's ward patricia wredeTurned out Wrede’s really good at portraying just how one could fall in love: not in a big fell swoop (at least in this case), but rather a stray thought here, and a puzzlement there, while going about the business of living one’s life which in this case involves magical mayhem, and intrigue of all sorts. I quite like how it takes time for Kim’s brain to catch up with where her heart has already gone.

If I had to sum up why Wrede’s books are comfort read, I’d say it’s because of the perfect blend of magic, old-timey England, a dash of romance, and a plot that is interesting enough despite being slightly boring at times (and no I refuse to believe that that’s an outright contradiction, thank you very much).

I’ll leave you with my favorite words from the books:

Bubblebrained, pigheaded, sapskulled gull! Muttonheaded flat! Nodcock. Goosecap.

Well, I ain’t no mace cove, and I don’t hold with bubbling a flash cull, not when it comes to getting priest-linked, anyways.

The often-exasperated fondness that had replaced the fear wasn’t love. Nor was the gratitude she felt because he had taken her out of the precarious street life that was all she had known until then, nor the also-often-exasperated respect that she had learned for him as a teacher, nor the equally exasperated friendship that surfaced when they were poking around some problem together. Exasperation, in fact, seemed to be a keynote of her feelings toward Mairelon. Was that how you fell in love with someone, then—by getting exasperated with him?

Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse

I came across Merrie Heskell’s The Princess Curse on LizMc2’s blog. Her description of the book as “a middle grade fantasy . . . involv[ing] a young woman discovering her power and her relationship with a powerful older man” reeled me right in!

The story’s a retake on “The 12 Dancing Princesses” fairytale. I’m not very familiar with the original tale except for the knowledge that the titular princesses are cursed to dance the night away. Thankfully, my lack of knowledge of the original had no bearing on my enjoyment of The Princess Curse which does have enough loose ends for there to be a sequel!

Reveka, the 13-year-old heroine, is exactly the kind of 13-year-old girl that I love to read about: smart (and self-aware enough to know that she’s smart), spunky, and scheming. She also has a limited store of patience, is full of confidence that borders on cockiness, and usually acts like an express train going on full steam—in other words, she reads and feels like a teenager. She dreams of having a herbary, and being “the herbalist for an entire abbey” because as she puts it:

[C]onvent was the best choice for me. A place where I would have all the time I was supposed to be devoutly praying to think about herbs. I didn’t really care for all the silence and singing and obedience—but my own herbary!

See what I mean about being smart and scheming? I want to be friends with this girl!

Also, the rich and varied description of all the herbs made me want to start a herb garden of my own! Immediately!

Reveka lives and works as an apprentice-herbalist at a castle with 12 princesses who mysteriously disappear each night. Attempts to investigate their whereabouts have resulted in either the said investigator disappearing completely or being put into a slumber from which nobody wakes up. There’s a prize for “breaking the curse” which our girl has her eyes on.

I love how we can see Reveka’s evolution as a character even in something as simple as her desire to break the curse: while money is the reason that Reveka becomes interested in the curse, very soon it takes on more personal tones as her co-apprentice gets caught in the curse’s tentacles.

The force at the center of the curse aka “the villain” is fleshed out and multidimensional rather than being rendered in a single color (in that it reminded me of another “evil villain” whose evilness had more to it than appeared on the surface). Same goes for Heskell’s description of the “Underworld” which is neither “dead” nor simple.

Reveka also has a complex relationship with her father. I don’t think I’ve seen father-daughter relationships as one of the main foci of a YA story and I really like that Heskell weaves that in. A pivotal point in the story hinges on Reveka’s love for her father. Of course, neither Reveka, nor her father, are very good at expressing their love for each other.

My one quibble with the book is the resolution of the curse and Reveka’s final decision which seemed a little too fatalistic, and too abrupt, and also a little troubling. I understand it’s the author’s prerogative to build her world the way she/he deems it fit but I find it troubling that [SPOILER ALERT—HIGHLIGHT TO READ FURTHER] the survival of the underworld hinged on Reveka’s acceptance of herself as a bride to Dragos. Till that point, I seriously thought that our whiz-kid would find a herb-based solution while her romance with Dragos would proceed on its own pace without there being a forcing of hands, so to say.

Despite the quibble, I think it’s a story worth reading. Here’s one of my favorite bits:

I jumped when the door banged open and Pa’s voice asked, “Have you seen Mihas? He hasn’t been around all day.”

“No, I haven’t seen your apprentice.” Brother Cosmin answered.

“Wait—where’s Reveka? Did she go off with him?”

“Go off with him?” Brother Cosmin repeated, sounding surprised.

Pa’s voice was grim. “He’s got something of a crush on her.”

I buried my face in my hands. Why did Pa know this?

“Why would you think that means she’d go off with him?” Brother Cosmin asked.

A good question, Brother Cosmin! Why would Pa think that I’d be interested in a cowherd’s stupid crush and take up a dalliance with the boy—to the point of neglecting my work and letting Mihas neglect his? . . .

“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” Brother Cosmin said. “She’s about as interested in Mihas as she is in my donkey. Which is to say she might stoop to giving him mashed juniper berries for his colic, but that’s about all the notice she pays either of them.”

Still Life With Breadcrumbs, Anna Quindlen

What I heard about Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs last year made me suspect that I would like it—and I was correct!

Still Life With Bread Crumbs is what I call a “quiet read,”—stories that focus more on a character’s inner life than on the externalities of that life. The external circumstances are still important but the emphasis is more on the character’s inner landscape, and how that changes as a result of the outside influences. Moreover, these influences tend to be more the slice-of-life variety than something exceptional. It’s almost like the author is parting the curtain on the character’s life for the period of the story.

Still Life With Bread Crumbs follows the life of Rebecca Winter in her 60th year. Quindlen’s revelations of Rebecca’s past (a New Yorker by birth), especially Rebecca’s marriage with a supercilious professor (a British academician), evokes the image of a very specific type of woman, a woman whose experience of life falls within a clearly circumscribed circle even though she happens to be an artist.

Broke, alone and feeling distinctly washed-up Rebecca is a photographer past her heyday—or as her son jokes, “the artist formerly known as Rebecca Winter.” Quindlen is really good at including little details that solidify this image of Rebecca as a certain type of woman in the reader’s mind. Only, as you continue to read, you come to realize, as does Rebecca herself, that “[h]er biography had all the trappings of sophistication but no actual sophistication at all.”

Am I making it sound too dry? Or too cerebral? It isn’t. Rebecca’s coming into her own as an artist and as a woman is heartfelt.

She had shot to fame with a series of photographs that in the eyes of the world “turned the impedimenta and the minutiae of women’s lives into unforgettable images.” For Rebecca however, her art is more “accidental” than the premeditated artistry that such a felicitation would seem to suggest:

Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she’d never felt that way. Over the years she’d made up a lot of reasons because people didn’t seem to like the arbitrariness of the reality. They also didn’t believe that she’d simply photographed what was already there—a bottle lying on its side with a puddle of olive oil shimmering along its curved lip, a handful of greasy forks glistening in the overhead lights, and of course what was later still called Still Life with Bread Crumbs, a vaguely Flemish composition of dirty wineglasses, stacked plates, the torn ends of two baguettes, and a dish towel singed at one corner by the gas stove.

(I have no clue about art but I think I would very much like a piece like Quindlen describes here. There’s something inherently appealing about it.)

Rebecca’s (and Quindlen’s) insistence that art is as much about being in the right place at the right time as about anything else really resonates with me.

As she begins taking photographs of a series of crosses that she keeps coming across, Rebecca vocalizes that:

She had not labored over them, or transformed them with the gift of her eye, at least not so she could tell. She just felt them.

This. . . feeling, this recognition of the ordinary being suffused with the luminous, reminded me of a line from a Marilynne Robinson interview that really struck me:

Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

Interwoven through Rebecca’s rekindling as an artist is the story of her unexpected romance with Jim Bates. Jim is decent, kind, and “the first man [Rebecca had] ever been with who had calluses.”

My favourite scene between the two is probably when Jim kisses Rebecca to her utter surprise:

“This is ridiculous. How old are you?”

“I was 44 last month,” he finally said, putting his glass down emphatically.

“Oh my God.” . . . “I am 60 years old.”

“Right. So what? You look great.” . . .

“That was not why I told you how old I was. It was so you would understand how ridiculous it would be to— ”





“Ludicrous. Hell, that’s even worse than ridiculous,” he said, and . . . walked back out into the snow. . . .

For most of her life she had not been what anyone would call an emotional person, but at odd, quiet, unexpected times . . . sentiment got the better of her.

“Oh my goodness,” she said and burst into tears, and sobbed loudly. . . .

Then the dog stepped back, sat down at attention, and let out one sharp bark. In a moment she heard the sound he’d heard. . . .

“This is ludicrous,” Jim said, and without moving removing his parka he put his arms around her and kissed her and kissed her, wet and cold and covered with snow as he was.

That use of ludicrous makes me chuckle, not in a laugh-out-loud way but in a quiet, life-can-be-unexpectedly-funny way. In fact there’s a thread of of wry humor running throughout the story.

I very much enjoyed how Quindlen conveys that love is love, no matter the age. The scenes between Jim and Rebecca are infused with that “new love” feel with all its attendant hopes, and anxieties. Let me be clear that romance is not the main focus of the story—Rebecca is. But that’s what makes the romance more interesting, embedded as it is in the larger context of Rebecca’s life:

One day she had been out walking and she had wondered whether she’d become a different person in the last year . . . Then when she really thought about it she realized she’d been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed, or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she’d thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product. Now she wasn’t sure what that might be, especially when she considered how sure she had been about it at various times in the past, and how wrong she’d been.

If that sounds too expository for your tastes, well, this might not be the book for you. This is, after-all, a parting of the curtain on Rebecca Winter’s 60th year of life.

Mini Review: Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting

Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting is definitely gothic in tone, and very atmospheric. It features a looming chateau (sorry castles, you went out of fashion somewhere in the beginning of the 20th century), a villain who’s also known as the Demon King and who oozes villainy through his very pores, a down-on-luck heroine, a rather aloof hero, and you get my drift.

The thing is that while I enjoyed starting the story, and getting to know our heroine (the story’s a first person narrative, told from her POV), and seeing how she goes about making friends with the nine-year old Philippe whom she’s been employed to governess at the start of the story, and being appropriately frightened by Philippe’s uncle Leon who didn’t need a neon sign on his forehead to announce his evil intentions of appropriating Philippe’s inheritance for himself, and lapping up all the description about the glorious countryside (which is set up as a rather nice antidote to the distressing atmosphere of the chateau), before long I started getting bored.

I think it was all that sunny countryside which somewhere along the way started becoming soporific. Which is quite weird considering how much I enjoy reading “nature writing” otherwise.

Then there was our heroine, who despite a prosaic name like Linda Martin, and being very plucky when it’s called for (duh!) is a little silly for my tastes. Silly in a way that irritates me rather than amuses me. And since the whole story IS told from her perspective I guess I was bound to start twitching a little and just wanting the stupid story to end up already, right? I have to say that her meet-cute, or should I call it the meet-RAWR!, with the hero Raoul is just. . . so over-the-top. She’s lost in her thoughts wandering the woods late at night (I kid you not, our girl likes wandering the woods that surround the isolated chateau in the middle of the night to shake off the blues) when she’s almost run-over by our hero. Umm. . . what?

You know what I’m tempted to do now? Read Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn to see if it’s me. By which I mean that perhaps I maybe constitutionally unsuited for the over-the-top? (My husband, if he could look over my shoulder right now, would very definitely shake his head from side to side).

So anyway, that’s all about my run-in with Mary Stewart. I did so have high hopes for her. Perhaps I should try another Mary Stewart with a slightly different tone than this one? You guys have any recommendations?

Anuja Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor & Those Pricey Thakur Girls Or Chick-Lit, The Indian Way

Ok, it’s official. I’m jumping onto the Anuja Chauhan bandwagon!

I’ve yet to read an author who captures modern middle-class India in as colourful, vibrant and typically Indian way as Miss Chauhan does. I have yet to see an author who celebrates Indian English the way she does! Our girl uses Hinglish (Hindi words sprinkled liberally with the English) unapologetically. Her characters’ obvious and literal translation of Hindi-thoughts into English-words, with nary a concern for grammar or the awkwardness produced by its lack of, is delightful.

As are the names of her characters: Rinku Chachi, Zahid Pathan, Jagpal Lohia, Pushkarni, Binni, Mamta Thakur. Chauhan’s evocation of entire personalities through clever naming of her characters is devious. Just reading the names, the characters spring up fully-formed in my head. Some of them are obvious spin-offs of famous personalities while others could have walked straight out of any Indian family. the zoya factor

Then there’s the way Miss Chauhan seems to have an ear for the way English is spoken in India (probably because of her long and illustrious career in advertising). Her prose in general, and her dialogues in specific, are really, really funny. Add to this her tongue-in-cheek and spot-on portrayal of things that make India and Indians tick (again, I suspect due to her long innings in advertising), and what you get is engrossingly laugh-out-loud funny reads.

And yes, she’s good enough at the niche she’s carved out for herself that I don’t particularly care about the lack of layered characterization in her stories. Or the absence of any incisive commentary on the subjects against which her stories unfold.

In The Zoya Factor the cricket crazy country of India begins to believe that Zoya, our heroine, is a lucky charm for the Indian cricket team. With the Cricket World Cup on the horizon no one is going to leave Zoya alone. And so our hapless heroine is catapulted from being a lowly advertising personnel to hobnobbing with the demi-gods of the Indian subcontinent: the Indian cricket team. Enter the captain of the team. Young, smoldering, and the face of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, he has no patience for Zoya, or the superstitious bollywaggle that is left in her wake (yeah, I just made that up).

Then there’s the crafty IBCC (Indian Board of Cricket Council) president Jogpal Lohia whose motives for “hiring” Zoya are not as selfless as would appear. This mad concoction of superstitions, cricket, cola (who did you think was paying for all that advertising?) and romance can give any Hindi film a run for its money (in fact I am surprised that Bollywood hasn’t jumped at the chance to turn this into a movie). Also appearing is a five-year old whose favourite verse goes something like this:

Joy to the world!
The teacher’s dead
We scissored off her head!
What happened to her body
We flushed it down the po-tty
And round and round it goes . . . and round it goes . . .
And round and round and round it goes . . .

-sung to the tune of Joy to the World of course.

The second Anuja Chauhan that I read is Those Pricey Thakur Girls (she’s published four books in total with the latest, The House That BJ Built, being out just a couple of weeks ago. Also, can I just say how much I love Inter-Library Loan? I was able to get my hands on both these books thanks to ILLs)!

those pricey thakur girlsThose Pricey Thakur Girls is a tale about mostly two of the five sisters who are named alphabetically, and who live in a sprawling bungalow on Delhi’s posh Hailey Road. Set in the 1980s, this one uses the Sikh riots as a backdrop for a budding romance between Debjani (or Dabbu as she is known) who’s a news reader, and Dylan Singh Shekawat, a zealous journalist who also happens to be a Christian-Rajput. There’s a slightly more measured feel to this book than The Zoya Factor but it is in no way any less of a romp.

I have to say that I found myself liking Dylan Singh Shekawat much more than I liked the Indian captain of The Zoya Factor. (Take his name: such a solid, reliable, fantasies-inducing, swoon-worthy name it is, doncha agree?) Then again it might be that I liked him more because we get scenes from the his POV in Those Pricey Thakur Girls while the captain in The Zoya Factor remains broodingly aloof. Those Pricey Girls’ heroine, Debjani, is also thankfully, less of a twit than Zoya (sorry Zoya, much as I enjoyed your distinctive voice in The Zoya Factor there were times when I found myself wondering if you had any brains left inside that pretty head of yours).

My favourite characters however, from the motley crew that makes up Those Pricey Thakur Girls, have to be Eshwari, the youngest of the Thakur sisters, and Satish. These two are classmates in 12th standard at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, and are good friends. The scenes between them are funny, heart-rending and capture the reality of what being 16 & 17 feels like. Satish’s attempts at wooing Eshwari are bumbling in a way that only a teenager’s wooing can be. A friends to potential lovers story I can’t wait to read more about them in the next book, The House That BJ Built.

I’ll end with a bit that captures Anuja Chauhan at her best. It’s from The Zoya Factor:

I obsess a little about being ‘cool,’ because, hello, when people ask me where I stay I have to look them in the eye, smile brightly and say ‘Karol Bagh’ with casual unconcern. Which is agony in advertising because when all the snooty ad people think Karol-Bagh type, they imagine a pushy wannabe in a chamkeela salwar-kameez with everything matching-matching. Someone who says ‘anyways’ instead of anyway, ‘grands’ instead of grand and ‘butts’ instead of butt. (As in she has no butts, earns 20 grands a month and lives in Karol Bagh. Who does she think she is, anyways?)

Of course they don’t know anything. They have no clue that the fancy south Delhi movie halls where they all throng to see the latest Hollywood films are owned by an enterprising Karol Bagh boy who lives down my road, still, even though he now owns houses all over Delhi, including one in Golf Links, the poshest quarter in the capital.

Because Karol Bagh has Soul.

It may be a loud, expansive, dhik-chik dhik-chik music-loving soul that died and became a soul because its arteries clogged with too much high-cloestrol, ghee-laden Punjabi food, but it’s a soul nonetheless.

P.S. My husband would like me to add that I LOLed so much during the reading of these two books that he was enticed into reading Those Pricey Thakur Girls. He quite enjoyed it.