2015 Reading Challenge – Book #22 – The Secret of Terror Castle

Book #22 – A book from your childhood – The Secret of Terror Castle by Robert Arthur (Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators #1)
Genre: Young Adult/Mystery/Suspense/Adventure
Published: 1964
Country: USA

The Secret of Terror Castle

Confession: Until a couple of years ago, I used to think that The Three Investigators’ series was actually written by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock himself. My mistake was justified since the couple of books that I possess from this series have the name Alfred Hitchcock on the cover (they don’t even say Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators as it is named), and all the books of course have introductions by him as well. However, I just found out from Wikipedia that the actual author Robert Arthur used the famous director’s name as one of the main supporting characters in the series’ to draw attention to his books. I was also under the impression that the protagonists were at least 16 or 17 years old when in fact they were about 13 or 14. So many revelations!

The Secret of Terror Castle is the very first book in the original series of 43 books which was published from 1964 – 1987. In this exciting debut of the three investigators, we are introduced to three young teenage boys who live in Rocky Beach, a few kilometers away from Hollywood. Jupiter “Jupe” Jones who is the ‘stocky’ (read: chubby) main brains of the group, Peter “Pete” Crenshaw who is the most athletic and Robert “Bob” Andrews, is the nerdy, studious one in charge of records and research. Their business cards say that they “investigate anything”.

TTI - Business CardUsing initiative, ingenuity and his superbly crafted grey cells, Jupiter secures their very first case as investigators from Mr. Hitchcock himself. The three are employed or rather ‘reluctantly permitted’ to find an authentic haunted house for Mr. Hitchcock’s next film. In return, Jupiter asks Mr. Hitchcock to introduce their very first case should they be successful in solving it (aah, that cleared up my earlier misunderstanding). Mr. Hitchcock is not happy dealing with the three boys but agrees to do it to get them out of his….errrr…hair, whatever little he has of it.

Alfred Hitchcock

“I’ll introduce whatever you write about your case.”

Even though Pete and Bob are not keen to mingle around with ghosts, they are duty-bound by Jupiter whose curiosity and the thrill of a challenge gets the better of him. And so the three set out to investigate a haunted castle which Jupiter has found, aptly known as Terror Castle. The castle, which was owned by a silent movie actor Stephen Terrill, now deceased has been abandoned for several decades and whoever has tried to inhabit it since then, has been driven away in sheer terror by various freaky paranormal incidents. It is up to the three to find out if it is in fact a real haunted castle or not.

Now, I have loved The Three Investigators since my early teenage years so I was quite eager to revisit this series because somehow I had never read the first book which started it all. There’s a right mix of excitement, suspense, thrill, fear, adventure and Jupiter’s cheekiness and intelligence to make it a good young adult mystery of the 60’s. The main supporting characters are all well etched – Mr. and Mrs. Titus Jones, Jupiter’s aunt and uncle who are owners of a salvage yard, Worthington, who is the proper, polite British chauffeur of a Rolls Royce that Jupiter has won the use of and of course Mr. Hitchcock who needs no introductions.

As a lover of secret hidey-holes like sheds, tree-houses, islands and caves as mentioned in The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and The Five Find-Outers, I have obviously loved the Headquarters of The Three Investigators as well. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have an office made up of a rusty old trailer fully equipped with a printing press, a telephone, speaker system, microphone and accessible via more than one secret entrance which no normal person can find? It was always a childish fantasy of mine to have a little private cubbyhole or nook where I could hold my own meetings and plan adventures.

The Three Investigators HQ

The Three Investigators’ Headquarters

Why should you read this book? Because it’s short, it’s snappy, there’s lots of thrill and excitement to keep you satisfied and it’s reminiscent of a much simpler time devoid of mobile phones, laptops and other modern technology. If your childhood memories were filled with Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, you’ll definitely love this one. If not, you should still give it a go.

Book Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #21 – Just Perfect

Book #21 – A trilogy – Just Perfect by Julie Ortolon (Perfect Trilogy #2)
Preceded by: Almost Perfect
Succeeded by: Too Perfect
Genre: Romance/Chick Lit
Published: 2005
Country: USA

Just Perfect by Julie Ortolon

The premise of this trilogy is as such: Three best friends – Maddy, Christine and Amy – in their early thirties, get very miffed when they find out that their very successful old college flat mate Jane has used them as examples in her best-selling book How to Have a Perfect Life of people who did not face their fears and settled for less. The three make a pact amongst themselves that they would prove their friend wrong by doing the very things that scare them and complete their individual challenges in a year’s time.

I wasn’t planning on reading this book. I really hated Almost Perfect (Maddy’s story) but I loved Too Perfect (Amy’s story) and since I didn’t feel connected to Christine’s character at all from the little I had read about her, I had completely planned on skipping this one. However, I decided to read it for the sake of completing the trilogy part of the challenge mentioned in the 2015 Reading Challenge. And I am glad I did.

The story goes something like this : Christine Ashton, a thirty-three year old successful ER doctor in Austin, goes to Silver Mountain, Colorado on a three-week skiing vacation during Christmas. Although she had been a good skier once upon a time in her teens, she has developed a deathly fear of heights to such an extent that she gets serious anxiety and panic attacks if she tries to get on a chairlift. As part of the one-year challenge pact made with her friends, she has to overcome this fear and once she meets her cute ski instructor Alec Hunter, sparks fly instantly from both ends.

Although the strong attraction is mutual on both ends, Christine’s impression of Alec is that of a young ‘unemployed ski-bum’ (he was temporarily employed as a ski instructor as a favor to his friend). Since Christine has had several loser ex-boyfriends who have done nothing but mooch off of her, she tries to keep him off limits. But Alec is persistent, oh so persistent. He tries to break down her walls and eventually succeeds when she finds out that he isn’t an unemployed loser but is actually a search-and-rescue coordinator for the county as well as a licensed paramedic.

I was all prepared to hate Christine or be bored by her. From the little I had read about her in the other two books, I thought she had to be a snooty, rich and uptight woman. I was wrong. Christine was likeable. She was funny, kind, helpful and didn’t have any false airs on account of her family’s rich connections. In fact, she had a lot of self-esteem issues that she was dealing with due to the fact that she knew she had been an unwanted surprise for her stuffy parents. Her mother was indifferent towards her and her father always favoured her older brother over her. Christine’s whole life had been spent trying to win her snobby family’s approval.

Alec was just perfect (pun intended). In fact, one might even say he was too perfect (pun intended again). He was cute in a boyish way, charming, friendly, easy-going, calm, patient, confident, extremely happy, kind, gentle, sweet, sensitive, generous, fun-loving, adventurous and to top it all off, he had a job which he loved from the very depths of his being. There was nothing, and I really mean nothing that you could find faulty in Alec. He was just so nice and down-to-earth. The ideal man to take home to your parents.

I enjoyed reading about Alec’s dynamics with all his friends and colleagues who were all friendly small-towners. He had a trained rescue dog Buddy, a golden retriever who adored him to the moon and back. In fact, everyone around him loved him and it was not difficult to see why. I did like his character a lot but even as I write this, I realize that he was unrealistically flawless. But even so, I liked his chemistry with Christine. They were totally meant for each other. He understood her completely and loved her unconditionally. I admired that he knew what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to go after it. I sympathized with Christine but also got extremely exasperated with her desperation to win her father’s approval so much all the time.

The book is fun for a one-time read. It’s waaaay better than Maddy’s boring story and it matches Amy’s story on a page-turning level. If you’re feeling blue and in the mood for a feel-good romance, then this book is ‘just perfect’ for you (pun definitely intended!)

Book Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #20 – Kiss Kiss

Book #20 – A book of short stories – Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl
Genre: Short Stories
Published: 1960
Country: USA

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I love short stories. The characterizations, the setting, the descriptions – everything is almost exact and precise like measurements for baking a cake. Words are not wasted and the story puts you in the middle of the action almost right away with no time to lose. That is why I strongly feel short stories bring out the very best (or worst!) of an author’s talent.

I was pleasantly surprised to read famous children’s author Road Dahl’s collection of short stories for adults. 11 stories which had first been published in different places, have been compiled into Kiss Kiss.

‘Expect the Unexpected’ – that was what was written on the cover image and that is exactly what I got. I really had no idea what to expect when I started reading but I was shocked and other times horrified because most of the stories are quite spine-chilling. They don’t exactly fall into the horror genre as there are no ghosts or spirits but cold-blooded murder and human nature play a very pivotal role in a very eerie psychopathic way. Some of the stories are just plain grotesque and will leave you with your hair raised on one end. Then there are a couple which are quite hilarious while some leave you feeling a bit of pity for the characters. The endings of most of them are implied, not revealing exactly what transpired but giving the reader the chance to speculate.

The stories are a varied bunch, set in either Britain or America with all sorts of characters – an obsessed beekeeper, a motherly landlady, a cheating wife, a couple of meek wives, a reincarnation of a cat, a woman-fearing Reverend (yes, he was more fearful of women than of God!), a vegetarian chef, an antique-dealer and many others. What I really found fascinating were the bits and pieces of real information that was imparted in these stories – from biology to history and also some know-how into the animal kingdom. It was very intriguing to see how Dahl had used all this knowledge and played around with it to create such unique plots with unexpected twists and turns and unpredictable characters.

The book is definitely a page-turner. The writing is very typically British charming with mentions of countrysides and farmhouses coupled with matronly women and one of the stories also signifies the increasing rate of divorce in 1950’s America. The vivid descriptions of people, places and things are very striking and you are able to clearly imagine the setting and characters in your mind’s eye.

She was a wonderful woman, my mother. She used to wear huge bracelets on her wrists, five or six of them at a time, with all sorts of things hanging from them and tinkling against each other as she moved. It didn’t matter where she was, you could always find her by listening for the noise of those bracelets. It was better than a cowbell. And in the evenings, she used to sit on the sofa in her black trousers with her feet tucked up underneath her, smoking endless cigarettes from a long black holder. And I’d be crouching on the floor, watching her.

I enjoyed this book immensely and if you’re into stories with elements of surprise and unpredictability, then you should definitely not give this a miss.

Book Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #19 – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Book #19 – A book by an author you’ve never read before – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Genre: Murder Mystery/Crime
Published: 2009
Country: Canada
Book to Movie/TV Adaptation: TV Adaptation in-development produced by Sam Mendes

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

Take a glass beaker and fill halfway with water. Now using a pipette, take some of Miss Marple’s amateur sleuthing skills, a splash of Hercule Poirot’s gray cells, a few drops of Nancy Drew’s spunk and determination, a dash of Houdini and a whole lot of Friedrich Wöhler’s passion for organic chemistry and shake vigorously. Voila! You’ve got yourself a perfectly made solution in the form of an 11-year old girl called Flavia de Luce.

Flavia is no ordinary little girl living in 1950’s post-war Britain. With a natural penchant for chemistry and a special fondness for poisons, she is a dangerous person to mess with. Forever playing a never-ending game of revenge with her two older sisters Ophelia and Daphne whilst trying to avoid her father’s depressed silences and her housekeeper’s custard pie, Flavia’s happiest moments are spent poring over her chemistry books and tinkering around in her home laboratory. In fact, the only person she seems to be comfortable with is odd-job man Dogger who is a little off in the head as well as her faithful bicycle Gladys.

So when someone leaves a dead bird with a stamp attached to its beak outside the front door and the next day a stranger literally takes his last breath before her eyes in her garden, Flavia puts on her Curious George hat and tries to solve the case much to the chagrin of Inspector Hewitt of the local police.

The book started off very strongly and I got the impression that this was going to be a very gripping mystery because the protagonist’s unusual hobbies and talents gave me the chills. In fact, it had all the makings of a typical Agatha Christie complete with harmless village characters and cold-blooded crimes.

But my impressions, though not totally off the mark, failed to prove me right entirely. The plot which was simple yet quite ingenious and told from Flavia’s POV, was bogged down by too many details and descriptions of backgrounds and fictional history that slowed down the pace considerably and there was a sense of loss of its gripping essence about halfway through. What I did enjoy, was the smatterings of real historical characters that meshed very well together with fictional characters. It was interesting to learn tidbits about various scientists, musicians and royalty who actually existed. I enjoyed the style of writing overall but didn’t care for the oodles of very odd similes which received top marks for creativity but unfortunately, none for their excessiveness.

I uncorked the partially filled bottle and held it to my nose. It smelled as if someone had dropped vinegar on the back of a sticking plaster: an acrid protein smell, like an alcoholic’s hair burning in the next room.

I liked Flavia, I really did. Possessing a strong feminist streak, she had a lot of gumption and quick thinking brains which I admired earnestly but I had a little bit of hard time adjusting to her level of maturity as the book progressed. Very wise and sagacious, she seemed to be 11 going on 21 (even more than Hermoine Granger at the same age!) Which is a good thing I suppose, but from the way she thought and spoke, I could only imagine a much older girl investigating the case than Flavia’s petite self. If this series had come out a decade earlier, then Dakota Fanning or Emma Watson would have been the perfect choice to play Flavia on screen.

So that was it. As at a birth, so at a death. Without so much as a kiss-me-quick-and-mind-the-marmalade, the only female in sight is enlisted to trot off and see that the water is boiled. Rustle something up, indeed! What did he take me for, some kind of cowboy?

Despite Alan Bradley’s Canadian roots, he has done a spectacular job writing a British mystery set in the fictional village of Bishop’s Lacey. I don’t know yet if I will read the rest of the Flavia de Luce series of mysteries but this was a very interesting experience indeed. I am excited to see how this series will be translated on the small screen.

I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn’t. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail: the fluttering fingers, the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin, as if, before my very eyes, it were being breathed upon by death.

And then the utter stillness.

I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.

Book Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #18 – The Secret of Happy Ever After

Book #18 – A book with more than 500 pages – The Secret of Happy Ever After by Lucy Dillon
Genre: Chick Lit / Romance
Published: 2011
Country: UK

The Secret of Happy Ever After

Two women, Michelle and Anna are best friends in their early thirties and live in Longhampton, an idyllic town by the canal. While Michelle runs a successful home lifestyle store and is a self-confessed control-freak, Anna is more laid-back and wears her heart on her sleeve. She is also stepmom to three girls and an energetic dog.  When Michelle decides to take over the adjoining bookshop from the retired owner, she hires Anna as the manager because of Anna’s love and extensive knowledge of all things literary. Although everything seems fine for Michelle and Anna professionally, their individual personal lives are a huge mess. Michelle has been separated from her emotionally abusive husband since three years and Anna’s stepdaughters still won’t accept her completely even after four years. Moreover, Anna is desperate for a baby of her own which doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Will these two women ever find their happy ever afters?

A shrewd businesswoman, Michelle loved making to-do lists, accomplishing goals and looking for ways to expand her shops. She had a lot of baggage she was carrying around which made her understandably cautious but her decision to keep everyone at arm’s length was coming across as too vain and self-centered. Anna was regrettably a doormat and her husband Phil, was too soft with the girls. Stuck in a dysfunctional family dynamic through no fault of hers, she didn’t know how to untangle the mess that sometimes comes with a ready made family. She was trying so hard (a bit too hard in my opinion!) but couldn’t connect with her stepdaughters on any level. It didn’t help one bit that her mother in-law was a cantankerous old woman who hated everyone. Out of the three stepdaughters, Chloe, the fifteen year old middle child was the most superficial and selfish brat that you felt quite annoyed at. Lily, who was eight had a wild imagination and was quite insightful for her age whereas Becca, the studious eldest eighteen year old was very sensible, understanding and the most likeable character in the whole book. The two dogs Pongo and Travis sadly couldn’t add any humour and character to the plot.

The only bits I really loved were the bookshop conversations and book reviews where Anna would throw book references freely with her customers with nostalgic excitement and love. Her childhood favourites have been my childhood favourites and I was very happy to come across mentions of The Malory Towers, Famous Five, Miss Marple, Sweet Valley and Harry Potter among several others. It was only Anna’s own sunny nature and her love for books that kept her going. I also loved Michelle’s keen sense of business and how she and Anna played around with the bookshop and made it a homely, comforting place to entice serious bibliophiles.

Or Miss Marple? That would be nice if the weather was good. In the garden, with a plate of hot cross buns and a pot of tea, working her way round St Mary Mead’s homicidal vicars and parlourmaids. Miss Marple talking like Joan Hickson. Everyone being terribly English. Bliss.

Other than that huge positive, there was a serious lack of chemistry between the leads and I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Michelle’s squabbles with Rory, the handsome but messy solicitor failed to hit the ‘Oh-they’re-so-falling-for-each-other‘ note because there seemed to be no brewing attraction between them at all! In fact, I personally felt a much deeper connection between Rory and Anna because of their endless bookish conversations. Phil was mighty pissing off because he failed to see how selfish he was being by taking Anna for granted and seemed to have no backbone as far as anything was concerned. Becca’s shy, sweet nature against Owen’s Peter Pan syndrome was borderline cute but it was quite unbelievable how things went on so smoothly and normally for them even after a whopping life-changing news.

The plot seemed to tie up too quickly at the end with all differences, quarrels and relationships smoothened out a little too neatly after lots of rifts had driven everyone apart. I felt this was the sort of book that needed an epilogue because the ending was too abrupt but there was no such luck there.

To be honest, I didn’t have any feelings for this book. Not in the beginning, middle or even the end. Nada. Zilch. The story had no peaks and troughs and the characters were just too one-dimensional and predictable to appeal to any deeper emotion. I felt more sorry for Anna than Michelle but even then I couldn’t connect with either of them.

The plot went on for too long, dragging and stretching so much till I was groaning and screaming at the characters to move on with their lives and let something else happen.There was more mention of blankets, beds, linens, pillows and unfortunately also books than of anything substantial that could push the story forward. There just wasn’t enough material to keep the plot going for 500+ pages and the book should have stopped at 250 where it would have met a great end. Unfortunately, this chick lit had none of those feel-good zingers that could have made it a memorable one.

 Book Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #17 – Lavender and Old Lace

Book #17 – A classic romance – Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed
Genre: Classic Romance
Published: 1902
Country: USA
Book to Movie/TV Adaptation: Adapted for film in 1921

Source: Etsy (I do not own this image)

Ruth Thorne, an independent, city girl of twenty-five years and nearly-exhausted due to her stressful job at the city newspaper, jumps at the chance to look after her eccentric aunt’s house on top of a hill in a small seaside village while her aunt is away. When she arrives, her aunt whom she has never met before, has already left for Europe for six months, leaving Ruth only a letter handed to her by young housekeeper Hepsey. The letter has some instructions (but no explanations) including a strange request to light the lamp in the attic every night before bed. Ruth’s reporter instincts immediately come alive – why does her aunt light the lamp every night? Who lives in the house at the foot of the hill where there is a similar lamp burning? Who was Mr. Charles Winfield? While searching for answers to the many questions that keep popping up, Ruth also finds true love on the way.

There’s only one word I will use to describe this book – charming. No, make that three – very very charming. There’s not much I didn’t like about this book. I think the only other classic romance I have really loved is Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster and this follows right after.

This Victorian romance is truly timeless and each and every character is lovingly written – from the strong, independent career girl that is Ruth, Hepsey, the very curious housekeeper,  Miss Ainslie, a lady with an almost divine and ethereal presence to Mr. Carl Winfield, a young man of about thirty with a mischievous and endearing charm that quietly steals Ruth’s heart. The other characters which reveal themselves towards the latter half of the story were very nicely sketched too.

Despite being a classic romance, the book’s element of mystery created the main crux of the story. Even though Ruth’s wild imagination makes her cook up different stories about her aunt’s past, she finds herself utterly bored within the first few weeks of her arrival for lack of anything productive to do. Eventually she finds great friendship in her aunt’s old friend Miss Ainslie’s calming presence and later in Carl, who is also from the city and on vacation for six months to heal his tired eyes. Carl, who is her future colleague at the same newspaper, annoys and aggravates her but slowly proves to be her dearest friend and constant companion and gradually, the love of her life. I loved how Carl and Ruth were total opposites of each other but Ruth’s feisty nature attracted Carl and his boyish but caring nature won over Ruth. Their cute, teasing and witty banters were the highlights of their friendship although I didn’t like it much when Ruth slowly changes from being a strong feminist woman, to turn into a much docile version of herself. That was the biggest moot point for me that I didn’t care for.

Towards the end when the mysteries of the past unfold themselves, the book’s tone changes from being light and humourous to a bittersweet one leaving you with a heavy feeling in your heart and a sense of melancholy.

Myrtle Reed’s writing is beautiful – descriptive but simple and not at all over-pretentious. She shares some lovely life wisdom about happiness through Miss  Ainslie’s enlightened self. It is ironic however, because Reed tragically committed suicide in real life at the young age of 36. Still, her legacy lives on in her wonderfully penned words and this book is a priceless gem which I would recommend to any lover of classics.

Book Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #16 – The Voice of the Violin

Book #16 – A mystery or thriller – The Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri (translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli
Genre: Mystery/Crime
Published: 1997 in Italian, translated into English in 2003
Country: Italy
Book to Movie/TV Adaptation: Adapted for television since 1999

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This book review is long, long, long overdue. I started reading this translated book over two months ago and abandoned it twice before finally picking it up again a few days ago to finish reading it.

The Voice of the Violin is the fourth to be published in the Inspector Montalbano series set in the fictional Sicilian town of Vigàta and the plot begins when Inspector Salvo Montalbano discovers the naked body of a young woman lying face-down in her bed in a house. Suspicion naturally falls on several of her acquaintances and friends.

The book starts off really well with the action happening in the first chapter itself. Since the events are slightly fast-paced, the writing isn’t too overly detailed which helps the story stay on track. The matter-of-fact style in which this book is written gives a broader overview of all that’s happening in the protagonist’s (Montalbano’s) life. Without wasting any more words than are absolutely necessary on the descriptions of physical looks or giving undue importance to aesthetics, you are given a sense of the places and characters’ personalities and what does or doesn’t make them tick. For instance, throughout the book, we get the sense that Montalbano is quite the temperamental man – mostly gruff, insulting and reckless on the outside, but with a certain level of sensitivity to his credit. He is certainly not perfect and some of his mistakes have led to huge consequences. You are also shown – mostly through snappy, well-written dialogue – Montalbano’s dynamics with the people around him which include his long-distance girlfriend Livia, Francois who is the little boy he and Livia wish to adopt, his superiors and his subordinates. He even has a true Italian love affair with his food judging from the handful of meal descriptions provided by Camilleri.

Although it has its merits, I wouldn’t say it is the best mystery I have read because halfway through the book, I started to lose some of my interest. Montalbano had a lot of personal and professional problems going on which seemed to distract him from the case. I also felt I had to have read the previous three books for me to understand some of his relationships in better detail. Montalbano was intuitive but also quite impulsive and not too thorough in his investigation. He did not seem to be asking the right questions at the right time or investigating things thoroughly which would have moved the case forward in a more efficient way. He had his own tricks up his sleeves which he played around with recklessly when he felt it was time. I know that’s just the way his character is written, but it was a bit frustrating at some points because as a reader, I felt I was being swept away by the story instead of being guided logically forward as is the case in most whodunnits where you are laid all the bare facts of the case and left to make your own assumptions. However, what bugged me most was that the most important piece of the jigsaw puzzle that held the key to the mystery was given away quite openly in the blurb at the back of the book but by the time Montalbano figured it out, 200 pages had already gone by with only 40 odd pages to go!

Although the book did have a certain hook to it, I wasn’t really convinced by how quickly it moved and wrapped up at the end. Even though it just didn’t seem like a whodunnit in its truest sense of the word, the book had its own charm and Camilleri certainly has a very unique talent for storytelling.

Book Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #15 – The Man With Two Left Feet and other stories

Book #15 – A funny book – The Man With Two Left Feet and other stories by P.G.Wodehouse
Genre: Short Stories/Humour
Published: 1917
Country: UK

The-Man-with-Two-Left-Feet-and-Other-Stories-by-P-G-Wodehouse
Better known as the man behind the comic antics of duo Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, British author P.G.Wodehouse also had several of his short stories published in periodicals that were compiled together to produce this priceless classic.

Combining hilarity with wit and charm, these short stories contain a lot of cute and heartfelt moments. While the stories are a miscellaneous bunch, the majority of them focus on a sweet kind of romance, one that is simple, relatable yet a little extraordinary. From a husband who takes dancing lessons secretly after work to impress his wife to a vacationer who falls in love with a lady at the seaside resort that he is staying at, all the romances have special quirky elements. There are even tales written from the first perspective of a woman as well as that of a dog.

I owe the fullness and variety of my life to this restlessness of mine, for I have repeatedly left comfortable homes in order to follow some perfect stranger who looked as if he were on his way to somewhere interesting. Sometimes I think I must have cat blood in me.

Wodehouse has weaved a beautiful web of timelessness and painted a handsome picture of an Edwardian era that was fashionable and concerned with the performing arts. The women in these stories are career girls, many with dreams of being on the stage dancing and touring the country with theatre groups. They are strong, independent and secure in their own identities yet have a certain air of homeliness about them. The men have some interesting professions too – an undercover private investigator, a policeman and an athlete among others – all strong and manly career choices but when it comes to the matters of their hearts, these heroes become awkwardly vulnerable and insecure, unsure whether their lady loves will reciprocate their feelings or trample their hearts.

She made you think of fresh milk and new-laid eggs and birds singing. To see her was like getting away to the country in August. It’s funny about people who live in the city. They chuck out their chests, and talk about old New York being good enough for them, and there’s a street in heaven they call Broadway, and all the rest of it; but it seems to me that what they really live for is that three weeks in the summer when they get away into the country. I knew exactly why they were cheering so hard for Mrs. Charlie. She made them think of their holidays which were coming along, when they would go and board at the farm and drink out of the old oaken bucket, and call the cows by their first names.

These little gems are like a favourite candy treat that you let yourself have from time to time. You take a bite out and savour it slowly, letting the smooth taste calm your senses and leave you with a happy feeling. The first bite has appeased your senses thoroughly so you save the rest of the candy for another time. That’s how I finished this book. One bite at a time.

For Jeeves’ lovers, there’s even a short story on Wooster and Jeeves on a trip to America. I will definitely be enjoying more of these little bites of Wodehouse’s infamous brand of humour in the future.

Book Rating: 5 stars out of 5

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #14 – No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom For Life

Book #14 – A non-fiction book – No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom For Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
Genre: Non-Fiction/Spiritual
Published: 2002
Country: USA

No Death, No Fear
I came across this book at my aunt’s place many months ago and opened it up to a random page in casual interest to find words that made a lot of sense to me. Intrigued, I downloaded this and many other books by Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to read “later” (How many of you can relate with me? I download hundreds of interesting books to read “later” and never end up reading them!)

We all go through personal loss, fear of death and grief at one point of our lives or another. Everyone rejoices at the birth of a new being but none of our emotional faculties can really ever prepare us for death, no matter how sudden or impending it may have been. Buddhism has a very profound yet scientific explanation regarding birth and death, one which is logical at the same time comforting.

No matter how open-minded we may be, some of the notions, concepts, beliefs, prejudices and biases that we have been brought up with always form the basis for many of our decisions and judgements. The Buddha observed that the ultimate goal of life is to achieve nirvana which can only be achieved by breaking the bondage of all concepts and notions in our minds that cause us much distress and keep us from our true reality of complete happiness and freedom. One of these is the concept of birth and death.

The Buddha said the nature of your reality is the nature of no birth and no death; no coming, no going, no being, no non-being, no same, no different. The teaching sounds as though it contradicts the teaching that everything that is born must die, the teaching that we cannot escape death, sickness and old age. Practice looking deeply. You will realize that birth is a notion, death is a notion, coming is a notion, going is a notion, being is a notion and non-being is a notion. We have to remove all notions concerning reality. Then we touch the ultimate reality, or suchness. 

Nothing is created, there’s only a transfer of energy from one form to the other. This is something we’ve studied in physics at school but maybe never thought about it carefully in life. Buddhism talks about applying this scientific fact and calls it manifestation. The book mentions several examples one of which is that of a cloud that changes its form into rain that subsequently gets transferred into our body in the form of food and water and repeats its cycle. Similarly, so does the manifestation of life.

Nothing has a separate self, and nothing exists by itself. If we examine things carefully, we will see that all phenomena, including ourselves, are composites. We are made up of other parts. We are made up of our mother and father, our grandmothers and grandfathers, our body, our feelings, our perceptions, our mental formations, the earth, the sun and innumerable non-self elements. All these parts depend on causes and conditions. We see that all that has existed, exists or will exist is interconnected and interdependent. All that we see has only manifested because it is a part of something else, of other conditions that make it possible to manifest. All phenomena are neither produced nor destroyed, because they are in a constant process of manifesting.

We are also guided to open our eyes and see that our historical dimension (or the reality that we have been led to believe) is different from our ultimate dimension (the reality that is our true nature). There are detailed examples that help us think outside the box and remove many mental barriers regarding everything in life. The book talks about simple ways of Buddhist meditation and practicing looking deeply in our daily lives and being aware to really awaken ourselves. Although these new and alternative thoughts are not easy to comprehend, practicing mindfulness can slowly help us rewire some of our preconceived notions.

I found myself asking several questions regarding pain and suffering. How can we justify suffering if there is no death, no fear, no coming, no going? There is an answer to that in the book as well. Your actions cause ripple effects around everything else. What you do or don’t do decides the course for others. Although the examples made sense, the justifications were still a bit difficult to take in.

How can I be happy? It’s simple, the Buddha says. Live in the present moment. In other words, be thankful of what you already have in your life.

Please take a pen and a sheet of paper. Go to the foot of a tree or to your writing desk, and make a list of all the things that can make you happy right now: the clouds in the sky, the flowers in the garden, the children playing, the fact that you have met the practice of mindfulness, your beloved ones sitting in the next room, your two eyes in good condition. The list is endless. You have enough already to be happy now. You have enough to be free from coming and going, up and down, birth and death. Nourish yourself every day with the wonderful things that life has to offer you. Nourish yourself in the present moment. Walk in the kingdom of God.

Finally, your own experience is the best teacher. This is what Buddhism is all about.

The Buddha has advised us that we should not accept any teachings as true just because a famous master teaches them or because they are found in holy books. This also includes the Buddhist canon. We can only accept teachings that we have put into practice with our own awakened understanding and that we can see with our own experience to be true.

I highly recommend this book. It’s a huge eye-opener. The philosophies are practical and the spiritual teachings of Buddhism are simple ways of life, the basics of which anyone can practice in their daily lives no matter what faith they follow or even if they don’t follow a faith at all. It’s all about the mind, soul and awareness of the self and waking up to the ultimate reality.

Book Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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Take-A-Step Thursday #8 – Get Back On The Horse

200 follows
Hello Everyone!

First of all, thank you so much dear fellow bloggers for reading my little blog! I recently hit the 200 followers mark and I am completely over the moon! Never imagined when I started blogging in January that I would hit this milestone. Really thank you from the bottom of my heart. It really motivates me to keep writing! 😀

It’s been too long since I’ve posted something in the Take-A-Step Thursday series. In my previous one, I mentioned that my mother had had a fracture and we were busy figuring out a new routine that included taking care of her and everything else. I’m very happy to say that she is recovering well although it will take her some more time to get back to normal which is to be expected. Meanwhile, we have a workable routine going on too.

I’ve been meaning to get back to blogging and everything else I had set out to do but honestly, I was at a loss for words. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about when I got back and I started procrastinating and becoming lazy. And that was making me feel guilty too. This defied my whole purpose of setting goals because procrastination, laziness and guilt were the biggest enemies I set out to defeat this year.

Anyway, I’ve jumped right  back on to the horse. I restarted my 2015 Reading Challenge (I was in a bit of a challenge slump – I would start a couple of books from the challenge and abandon them a few days later and would just opt for some comfort reading). Hence, I am a few weeks behind on the reading challenge but that’s okay. The point is to read a variety of books throughout the year and read them well. 🙂

I have also somewhat rejoined the 5 AM Club. I say somewhat because it’s still a bit erratic. I have to mention though – the morning routine that I had established for myself earlier was working so well for me that when I abandoned it in April (I was just not feeling up to it) after my mom’s incident, it affected my health to a great extent. It’s amazing what a morning ritual can do for you in all areas of your life especially your health and I for one, can personally vouch for it. I finally decided I certainly didn’t want to let go of all the progress I was making and be another statistical number of the 92% who fail to achieve their new year resolutions. Although this Forbes article is specifically targeted at Americans, I think it can apply to mostly everyone. So this time around, I’ve made a daily goal worksheet where I can track my progress every day and have a better idea of what my problem areas are or what doesn’t work for me and where I need to plan ahead. So far, it’s only been a few days but I think it could work. I got the idea from this video.

Although the routine is still shaky, I feel like I am in charge of my own life again instead of letting my life control me. Getting disciplined and organized is my overall goal for this year and daily planning is becoming my new best friend. I hope I can tip myself into the 8% who do succeed in goal-setting. Here’s a little motivational quote I read somewhere on LifeHack which makes complete sense to me right now:

It’s never too late to start over. If you weren’t happy with yesterday, try something different today. Don’t stay stuck. Do better.

Get back on the horse
Meanwhile, I would love to hear some planning and scheduling tips from you guys! What works for you and any advice you can give me to help plan my day, week, month and year better? I would love to hear from you! 🙂

You can email me at thistlesandwhistles@hotmail.com
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