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Book Nook - 13-08-2018

Monday, August 13, 2018
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

Love And Magic
Imogen Hermes Gowar’s historical novel with a large dollop of magic was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, and 'The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock' makes readers believe in the impossible.

The novel is set in Georgian London of the eighteenth century, where a lonely middle-aged widower, Jonah Hancock, awaits news of one of his merchant ships gone out to trade. What he gets instead is his captain Tysoe Jones selling his ship to purchase a mermaid. Worse, the creature is not even alive, it is “desiccated and furious, its mouth open in an eternal apish scream.”

Hancock’s household, looked after sprightly niece Susannah and a young maid, is all agog. Jones suggests that Hancock recover his lost money by displaying the mermaid in a public place and charging good money as entry fees. Much to his surprise, and his stern sister’s disapproval, the freak-show works.

Meanwhile, in another part of London, a beautiful courtesan, Angelica Neal, is in financial trouble, when her aristocratic lover dies without leaving her anything. Angelica had come out of London’s most celebrated bordello, run by the wheezy old Bet Chappell, who is a shrewd businesswoman and unabashed madam to a gaggle of pretty, young girls sought after by the rich and powerful men of London.  

Chappell offers Hancock a large sum to hire the mermaid, to attract more wealthy customers to her brothel. Hancock, who is a simple man, goes to the grand party thrown to display the mermaid, and while he is besotted by Angelica, he is horrified by the orgy that takes place.

Angelica falls in love with a handsome leech, finds herself penniless and without any prospects at the age of just twenty-eight, when in her trade, she is considered old. To save herself from impending disaster, she offers marriage to Hancock, who is probably too shocked to refuse a damsel in true distress.

The real mermaid of the title makes its mysterious appearance now, and in keeping with the myths that say mermaids bring bad luck, the mismatched but strangely happy marriage of Jonah and Angelica comes under an inexplicably ill omen.

Gowar captures the period with meticulousness, does not judge the rapacious Bet Campbell or the vain Angelica.  There is cruelty and tenderness, hopeless love and emotional exploitation, wit and misery in the story, with the malevolence of the mermaid swirling around the air.  It’s a book to be read slowly and savoured.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
By Imogen Hermes Gowar
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Pages: 496

Excerpt of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
The light in the office has a murky cast to it, full of storms. The rain comes down in sheets. Mr Hancock’s ledgers are spread out before him, creeping with insect words and figures, but his mind is not on his work, and he is grateful for the distraction of a scuffling outside the office. Ah, thinks Mr Hancock, that will be Henry, but when he turns around from his desk it is only the cat. She is almost upside down at the foot of the stairs, with her rear in the air, her hind paws splayed wide on the bottom step, and her forepaws pinning a squirming mouse to the hall floorboards. Her little mouth is open, teeth flashing in triumph, but her position is precarious.
‘Whisht!’ says Mr Hancock. ‘Begone!’ but she catches the mouse in her jaws and prances across the hall. She is out of his sight, but he hears the thrum of her dancing paws and the dampish thud of the mouse’s body hitting the floorboards as she flips it into the air again and again. He has watched her play this game many times, and always finds her enquiring, open-throated cry unpleasantly human. He turns back to his desk. He could have sworn it was Henry coming down the stairs. In his mind’s eye the scene has already taken place: his tall thin son, with white stockings and brown curls, pausing to grin into the office while all about him the dust motes sparkle.

 

SHORT TAKES
The synopsis of Manoj Jain’s new book, 'Dystopia', says, “Children start their travels in the blissful kingdom of Shambala, a beautiful land, where they are protected and taken care of. They enter Shambala as little infants, trusting their parents and caregivers. The children continue on their journey, skipping along the path till they reach a dark forbidding gate, which like some powerful vacuum sucks them inside and into the next kingdom of Dystopia. I am their guide there and I will oversee their journey in this new land.

“Manoj Jain discusses themes of childhood pain, growing up, teenage angst, role identities and parenting. The story, guided by the spirit of Dystopia, is set in a small dinner party, a reunion among five friends. During the course of the evening, they uncover the source of various past wounds and resolve why a young girl had to kill herself at eighteen.”

Dystopia
By Manoj Jain
Publisher: The Write Place
Pages: 108 Pages

 

The Family Plot
Lisa Wingate’s bestselling 'Before We Were Yours' is based on a true events that took place in Memphis, Tennessee in the early years of the twentieth century. It cannot be imagined how a woman ran a baby stealing and adoption racket for many years without getting caught. She simply picked up poor children—particularly good-looking ones-- conned their often illiterate parents into signing away their rights, and sold them to rich patrons who wanted to adopt kids.

Twelve-year-old Rill Foss is the oldest of five siblings, living with their poor but loving parents on a shanty boat. When their father takes his wife mother suffering from a difficult labour to the hospital, the children are abducted by a policeman and taken to an orphanage. They are registered under different names, so that they cannot be traced.

In the orphanage, they suffer starvation and unbelievable cruelty, but because the Foss kids, with the exception of one sister, are all blonde cherubs, Georgia Tann, who runs the child trafficking scam, knows she can make a fortune off them. Rill, renamed May, puts up with inhumane conditions in the hope that their parents will come and rescue them. Her sister is raped and killed, all but one of her siblings sold; somehow she manages to stay close to one sister, Fern, when they are both adopted by a loving couple. Rill makes an attempt to escape, and after a heartbreaking return to the family’s boat, she gives up fighting fate.

In the present, she is a disruptive new resident in an old people’s home, where she encounters Avery Stafford, a lawyer and the politically ambitious daughter of a senator. Avery comes to believe that there is some connection between her grandmother Judy, suffering from dementia and May Crandall. Despite the warning of her childhood friend and fiancé, Elliott, she starts an investigation into her family’s past. She also meets the handsome Trent Turner, who helps in her mission.

Hovering over Avery’s near-perfect life is appalling tragedy of the past. Rill/May’s story, bleak though it is, has a little girl’s courage and hope. Avery’s mild trauma simply cannot compare. What is quite shattering is that Georgia Tann and her associates were never punished, because there were too many powerful families interested in covering up the scandal.

Before We Were Yours
By Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine
Pages: 352

 

Excerpt Excerpt of Before We Were Yours
I take a breath, scoot to the edge of the seat, straighten my jacket as the limo rolls to a stop on the boiling-hot asphalt. News vans wait along the curb, accentuating the importance of this morning’s seemingly innocuous meeting.

But not one moment of this day will happen by accident. These past two months in South Carolina have been all about making sure the nuances are just right – shaping the inferences so as to hint, but do no more.

Definitive statements are not to be made.

Not yet, anyway.

Not for a long time, if I have my way about it.

I wish I could forget why I’ve come home, but even the fact that my father isn’t reading his notes or checking the briefing from Leslie, his uber-efficient press secretary, is an undeniable reminder. There’s no escaping the tagalong enemy that rides silently in the car with us. It’s here in the backseat, hiding beneath the gray tailored suit that hangs a hint too loose over my father’s broad shoulders.

Daddy stares out the window, his head resting to one side. He’s relegated his aides and Leslie to another car.

“You feeling all right?” I reach across to brush a long blond hair ¬¬– mine – off the seat so it won’t cling to his trousers when he gets out. If my mother were here, she’d whip out a mini lint brush, but she’s home, preparing for our second event of the day ¬¬– a family Christmas photo that must be taken months early… just in case Daddy’s prognosis worsens.

He sits a bit straighter, lifts his head. Static magnetizes his thick, gray hair, so that it’s sticking straight out. I want to smooth it down for him, but I don’t. It would be a breach of protocol.

If my mother is intimately involved in the micro-aspects of our lives, like fretting over lint and planning for the family Christmas photo in July, my father is the opposite.
He is distant – an island of staunch maleness in a household of women. I know he cares deeply about my mother, my two sisters, and me, but he seldom voices the sentiment out loud. I also know that I’m his favorite, but the one who confuses him most. He is a product of an era when women went to college to secure the requisite M-R-S degree. He’s not quite sure what to do with a thirty-year-old daughter who graduated top of her class from Columbia Law and actually enjoys the gritty world of a federal DA’s office.

Whatever the reason – perhaps just because the positions of perfectionist daughter and sweet daughter were already taken in our family – I have always been brainiac daughter. I loved school and it was the unspoken conclusion that I would be the family torchbearer, the son-replacement, the one to succeed my father. Somehow, I always imagined that I’d be older when it happened and that I would be ready.

Now, I look at my dad and think, How can you not want it, Avery? This is what he’s worked for all his life. What generations of Staffords have strived for since the revolutionary war, for heaven’s sake. Our family has always held fast to the guiding rope of public service. Daddy is no exception. Since graduating from West Point and serving as an Army aviator before I was born, he has upheld the family name with dignity and determination.

Of course you want this, I tell myself again. You’ve always wanted this. You just didn’t expect it to happen yet, and not this way, that’s all.

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