Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

★★★★★ (5/5)

This is perhaps my second favourite Agatha Christie mystery, after Murder on the Orient Express, and before And Then There Were None. An ensemble of scintillating characters, each weighed down by probable reasons for committing heinous crimes, add to the mystery of this novel. They are all suspects till the very end.

I am also quite amused by how almost every Hercule Poirot thriller starts with the detective being on a vacation but then finding himself in midst of chaos and a murder or two.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • “How true is the saying that man was forced to invent work in order to escape the strain of having to think.”
  • Her eyes, dark with a kind of smoldering fire, had a queer kind of suffering dark triumph in them.
  • You could have exercised that charm or you could have restrained it. You had everything, Madame, that life can offer. Your friend’s life was bound up in one person. You knew that, but, though you hesitated, you did not hold your hand.
  • Man doesn’t want to feel that a woman cares more for him than he does for her.
  • To succeed in life every detail should be arranged well beforehand.
  • “You’d rather have no Pyramids, no Parthenon, no beautiful tombs or temples—just the solid satisfaction of knowing that people got three meals a day and died in their beds.”
  • Men were incomprehensible! Even one’s nearest and dearest had unsuspected reactions and feelings.
  • You’ve got to break down and destroy before you can build up.
  • They conceive a certain theory, and everything has to fit into that theory. If one little fact will not fit it, they throw it aside. But it is always the facts that will not fit in that are significant.
  • You should look on death as the Oriental does. It’s a mere incident—hardly noticeable.
  • His manner was all smiling urbanity. Only the taut line of his jaw and the wariness of his eyes betrayed the fact that a thoroughly experienced fighter was on his guard.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

★★★★★ (5/5)

One of the most compelling novels I’ve had the honor to read. Absolutely incredible! My eyes were strained from constant reading, but I simply couldn’t tear myself away from this marvel. Sheer brilliance of storytelling is coupled with vivid characters, embossed in the ever-breathing, stringent Shaker Heights – an elitist settlement, founded and grounded upon rules and perfection.

This is a story about blindness and blunt ignorance as well as quietude and awareness of social, moral and personal issues that plague existence. Silent rebellion runs in the characters of Mia, Pearl and Izzy, and loud conformity runs in the veins of Richardson’s and other inhabitants of Shaker Heights.

Profound dilemmas make up the core of this story – shallow urbanity, racism, cosmopolitan ideals, elitism and classism, motherhood, sense of entitlement, nature of binary understanding and social mores. It is in the tackling of such sensitive issues that author Celeste Ng shows remarkable sagacity. We are always shown both sides of the coin. Yet, it is not up to the reader to be a judge for events unfurl on their own, lending insight to human nature.

Can a haunting past ever be reconciled with? And what can be done about buried, unfulfilled, unrequited ambitions? How delicate, unassuming is the line between right and wrong? Are there any absolute answers? How much can a subjective experience be transmuted to objectivity? And how much knowledge is required to enable one to have a complete understanding of human beings and their predicaments? This novel presumes to neither retain nor exude any solutions, as the prose is wonderfully simple and anti-didactic. However, it does invite the reader to ponder over such questions.

Long buried past veers into the present constantly in this story. Secrets long dead are unearthed, revived, recalled and lived through all over again. But to what end? Or is there even an end? The main story often swirls into the lives of side characters, giving more depth to the plot, but always returning to the main plot, homing into the essence of the story.

Empathy and kindness seems to be a gateway to comprehending human existence. To some characters in this story, these values come naturally. In others, it may be evoked by external events or people. In a few, however, such virtues fail to make a mark. Similarly, in the nature vs. nurture debate, the setting of Shaker Heights plays an indispensable role. Although a human creation, the colony takes a life of its own, driving its settlers on a highly-regulated pathway, dictating their lives around intangible rules, propagating hollowness in the garb of perfection and happiness. Mrs. Richardson exemplifies this best as her bitterness is negated by Mia’s organic compassion.

In all its remarkable glory, Little Fires Everywhere is one of the most phenomenal novel I’ve come across. Highly recommended!

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

About Shaker Heights

  • Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex house—of renting, instead of owning—and allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable.
  • Outside in the world, volcanoes erupted, governments rose and collapsed and bartered for hostages, rockets exploded, walls fell. But in Shaker Heights, things were peaceful, and riots and bombs and earthquakes were quiet thumps, muffled by distance.

On Classism and Opportunity

  • What could be less satisfying than stealing from someone so endowed that they never even noticed what you’d taken?
  • Work! When her mother said it, it reeked of drudgery: waiting tables, washing dishes, cleaning floors. But for the Richardsons, it seemed noble: they did important things.
  • Where did this ease come from? How could they be so at home, so sure of themselves, even in pajamas? When Lexie ordered from a menu, she never said, “Could I have . . . ?” She said, “I’ll have . . .” confidently, as if she had only to say it to make it so.
  • To have such a deep taproot in a single place, to be immersed in it so thoroughly that it had steeped into every fiber of your being: she couldn’t imagine it.
  • Being allowed to do something and knowing how to do it are not the same thing.
  • Didn’t you have the right to know where something came from, so that you knew what malfunctions might be in store? Didn’t she—as this woman’s employer, as well as her landlady—have a right to know the same?
  • A lifetime of practical and comfortable considerations settled atop the spark inside her like a thick, heavy blanket.
  • Getting information out of interviewees, she had learned over the years, was sometimes like walking a large, reluctant cow: you had to turn the cow onto the right path while letting the cow believe it was doing the steering.
  • Each time, faced with this impossible choice, she came to the same conclusion. I would never have let myself get into that situation, she told herself. I would have made better choices along the way.
  • “Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance. We all do things we regret now and then. You just have to carry them with you.”
  • But the truth was—as Mr. Richardson recognized—that an angry Asian man didn’t fit the public’s expectations, and was therefore unnerving. Asian men could be socially inept and incompetent and ridiculous, like a Long Duk Dong, or at best unthreatening and slightly buffoonish, like a Jackie Chan. They were not allowed to be angry and articulate and powerful. And possibly right, Mr. Richardson thought uneasily.

On Rules and Contrarians

  • In fact, the city’s motto was—literally, as Lexie would have said—“Most communities just happen; the best are planned”: the underlying philosophy being that everything could—and should—be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.
  • She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow them—and believe—she did.
  • The more impatient the key wielder, the more firmly and insistently the key is jammed into the keyhole, the more tenaciously the toothpick will cling to the innards of the lock, and the longer it will take to extract it even with the right equipment.
  • One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.

On Motherhood

  • To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once.
  • It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?
  • She had told Pearl the outline of everything, though they both knew all the details would be a long time in coming. They would trickle out in dribs and drabs, memories surfacing suddenly, prompted by the merest thread, the way memories often do.
  • Every time she did this, she was comforted by how Pearl smelled exactly the same. She smelled, Mia thought suddenly, of home, as if home had never been a place, but had always been this little person whom she’d carried alongside her.
  • She thought, as she would often for many years, of the photograph from that day, with the one golden feather inside it: Was it a portrait of her, or her daughter? Was she the bird trying to batter its way free, or was she the cage?

Brilliant Characterization

  • Moody held his breath, afraid the camera might slip from her hands onto her daughter’s trusting upturned face, that she might tumble over the sill herself and come crashing down into the grass. None of this happened.
  • Mia shared very little in return, but she’d learned over the years that people seldom noticed this, if you were a good listener—which meant you kept the other person talking about herself.
  • In Pauline and Mal’s house, nothing was simple. In her parents’ house, things had been good or bad, right or wrong, useful or wasteful. There had been nothing in between. Here, she found, everything had nuance; everything had an unrevealed side or unexplored depths. Everything was worth looking at more closely.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.
  • The hot plates she carried from the kitchen seared the insides of her forearms with arc-shaped scars.
  • There was a whole stack of casseroles in the fridge, a leaning tower of Pyrex baking dishes crimped in foil. As if no one knew what to do in the face of such tragedy except to make the heaviest, heartiest, most prosaic dish they could, to give the bereaved something solid to hold on to. None of them mentioned, or looked at, Warren’s empty place by the window.
  • The fog mirrored her state of mind so perfectly she felt as if she were walking through her own brain: a haze of formless, pervasive emotion, nothing she could grasp, but full of looming thoughts that appeared from nowhere, startling her, then receded into whiteness again before she was even sure what she had seen.
  • When she looked down, she saw no safety net, only a forest of skyscrapers stabbing upward like needles upon which she would be impaled.
  • If a soul could leave a body, she thought, this is the sound it would make: like the screech of a nail being pulled from old wood.
  • She had felt, finally, as if she could speak without immediately bumping into the hard shell of her sheltered life, as if she suddenly saw that the solid walls penning her in were actually bars, with spaces between them wide enough to slip through.

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

An odd yet entertaining read. A geriatric black comedy revolving around aged people getting mysterious phone calls, reminding them of their inevitable death. Memories are revived, secrets are unearthed. The characters are colorful, which lend this novel an amusing thrill. Each have their own antics to live by, ranging from an overtly suspicious nature to being willfully malevolent, from being meticulous in observations of others to the point of obsession to being inconsiderate of a life partner’s sickness. Despite being bedridden, or severely arthritic, or on the verge of senility, these characters refuse to give up the last specks of control of their own lives, whether fastened to an old home or wandering freely in their own residences.

Common passions ail them all – greed for wealth, sense of entitlement, gossip mongering, revenge, jealousy. Attending funerals comes second nature to them, but so does attacking each other with walking sticks.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • Whenever he considered his own behaviour he thought of himself not as “I” but as “one.”
  • She reflected that everything could be worse, and was sorry for the youngest generation now being born into the world, who in their old age, whether of good family or no, educated or no, would be forced by law into Chronic Wards;
  • “Being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as on a battlefield.”
  • “It’s difficult,” said Miss Taylor, “for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.
  • She retained in her mind a vague fascinating enmity for Jean Taylor without any salutary definition.
  • But the word solicitor fairly turned her, as Granny Barnacle recounted next day, arse over tit.
  • She saw the facts as a dramatic sequence reaching its fingers into all his life’s work. This interested him so far as it reflected Charmian, though not at all so far as it affected himself.
  • And her novelist’s mind by sheer habit still gave to those disjointed happenings a shape which he could not accept, and in a way which he thought dishonest.
  • Why does one behave like this, why? he asked himself as he drove into King’s Road and along it. Why does one do these things?
  • “Let the fire see the people, Granpa,” said Olive, for Percy was standing back-to-fire straddling and monopolising it.
  • “Final perseverance is the doctrine that wins the eternal victory in small things as in great.”
  • Whom, she thought, can I draw Strength from? She considered her acquaintances one by one—who among them was tougher, stronger than she?
  • It is a great aid to memory to go through in one’s mind each night the things which have happened in the course of the day.”
  • I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practise which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid.
  • She possessed a strong faculty for simply refusing to admit an unpleasant situation, and to go quite blank where it was concerned.
  • His spirits always seemed to wither in proportion as hers bloomed.
  • “A good death doesn’t reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul.”
  • If you don’t remember Death, Death reminds you to do so.
  • But charity elevates the mind and governs the inward eye.
  • Out of the deep resounds the hollow cry, Remember—oh, remember you must die!
  • He greatly desired money he yet seemed willing to sacrifice quantities of it to gain some more intense and sinuous satisfaction.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

As a somber, somewhat lonesome widower, who had kept to himself for a long time, exposition and conversation sure comes to him easily which is not just unbelievable but also borders on the ridiculous. Coupled with freak coincidences which allowed Arthur to go on one adventure after the other made the story quite ludicrous. I doubt if anyone running after a burglar would suddenly indulge in remembrance of the past.

I also found the dialogues didactic and patchy in nature. No one talks about “alabaster skin” and “aquamarine eyes”, that too whilst describing a woman from the past to a complete stranger on phone. Neither does one come across a man in a restaurant who chooses to discuss his love life in order to seek advice from an elderly person.

It is one of those stories where settings, characters and plot points are deliberately installed in places only to aid the flow of the story to its logical conclusion. A myriad of characters are presented, not with an existence of their own, but only to assist Arthur Pepper with finding more about himself.

It is sloppy, careless writing. The skeletal story perhaps had potential but wanes when mere fortuities are crafted out of thin air.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • He wished the two of them were there now, their feet crunching on gravel paths, marveling at cabbage white butterflies fluttering among the roses, looking forward to a big slice of Victoria sponge in the tearoom.
  • They had their own lives now. Where once Miriam was their sun and he their moon, Dan and Lucy were now distant stars in their own galaxies.
  • She loved the elephant charm. We used to look through the emerald and see the world in green.
  • He left radios on in each room so he wouldn’t have to hear his own footsteps.
  • They talked about their loved ones as if they were objects. Miriam would always be a real person to him. He wouldn’t trade her memory like that.
  • Each time she returned, the house seemed to shrink in size. It had once seemed so spacious
  • She’d once thought, in a darker moment, that out of both parents her dad would probably go first. She was sure that her mother would get by. She was self-sufficient and sensible. Her dad on the other hand had a permanently bewildered air about him as if everything was a surprise.
  • He seemed to be able to hone in on a goal and pursue it single-mindedly, without emotion or doubt getting in the way.
  • He felt as if the city embraced him. He had expected it to be through fear of the unknown, but it was through exhilaration.
  • Scarborough College was a swarm of students. They moved as if one, through the reception area and into the corridors that led off it like a termite mound.
  • Arthur thought about how it was possible for memories to shift and change with time. To be forgotten and resumed, to be enhanced or darkened as the mind and mood commanded.
  • You can make memories out of money, but you cannot make money out of memories.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

★★★★ (4/5)

A delightfully eccentric and magical story. “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is all about dusty bookshelves and ancient, unread tomes and the glory of book spines and scrolls from a past not to distant. There is just the right amount of mystery and fancy, coupled with modern age technology and how both the past and future can exist in harmony and symbiosis.

On one hand, we have old knowledge buried between pages in code, written in ink. On the other we have fantastical machines, as if conjured from a future yet unborn, to decode and reserve old knowledge for posterity. Traditional knowledge might be at odds with what the present holds, but they are driven into compatibility by forces of camaraderie, loyalty and curiosity.

There is also a marvelous intertwining of different knowledge bases and career fields – software engineers, archaeologists, fantasy writers, coders and visual effect artists – that take the reader on a euphoric adventure across Google headquarters in San Francisco, to secret underground libraries and Storage Unit companies hoarding archaeological and historical artefacts.

Very rarely does one come across a story in which books and modern day tech are not pitted against each other. This is one of those magnificent reads. Highly recommended!

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Books & Old Knowledge

  • Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up—three stories of books, maybe more.
  • His inventory is eclectic; there’s no evidence of pattern or purpose other than, I suppose, his own personal taste.
  • Old knowledge in general. We call it OK. Old knowledge, OK. Did you know that ninety-five percent of the internet was only created in the last five years? But we know that when it comes to all human knowledge, the ratio is just the opposite—in fact, OK accounts for most things that most people know,
  • But, Clay—sometimes discipline is the truest form of kindness.
  • So far, every line out of Moffat’s mouth has been pleasant repetition. His voice has been a needle bobbing comfortably through a deep groove in my brain. But that line—I have never read that line. That line is new.
  • Getting stolen is one of the best things that can happen to an object. Stolen stuff recirculates.
  • I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.

Preponderance of Technology

  • “Each big idea like that is an operating system upgrade,” she says, smiling. Comfortable territory. “Writers are responsible for some of it. They say Shakespeare invented the internal monologue. ”Oh, I am very familiar with the internal monologue. “But I think the writers had their turn,” she says, “and now it’s programmers who get to upgrade the human operating system.”
  • The switch flips over with a loud thwack and the computer rumbles to life. It sounds like an airplane taking off; there’s a loud roar, then a screech, then a staccato sequence of beeps.
  • Anatomix can now render the entire human body, with perfectly calibrated jiggle and luminosity in places you didn’t realize you had either
  • Kat is a New York neophyte. She gawked at the city’s predawn glitter as our plane curled down into JFK, her fingertips on the window’s clear plastic, and she breathed, “I didn’t realize it was so skinny.”
  • A fellowship of secret scholars spent five hundred years on this task. Now we’re penciling it in for a Friday morning.
  • With each new mega-project she describes, I feel myself shrink smaller and smaller. How can you stay interested in anything—or anyone—for long when the whole world is your canvas?
  • I’ve never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say, it’s a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes:
  • The Con-U storage facility is the most amazing space I have ever seen. Keep in mind that I recently worked at a vertical bookstore and have even more recently visited a secret subterranean library. Keep in mind, also, that I saw the Sistine Chapel when I was a kid, and, as part of science camp, I got to visit a particle accelerator.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • None of this represented the glorious next stage of human evolution, but I was learning things.
  • Neel owes me a few favors, except that so many favors have passed between us now that they are no longer distinguishable as individual acts, just a bright haze of loyalty. Our friendship is a nebula.
  • He sleeps lightly and briefly, often sitting up straight in a chair or lying pharaoh-like on the couch. He’s like a storybook spirit, a little djinn or something, except instead of air or water his element is imagination.
  • My imagination is almost physically straining. Fingers of thought are raking the space behind the cushions, looking for loose ideas, finding nothing.
  • A flood of shame washes through my blood and mixes with the anger and they swirl together into a heavy soup that makes me feel sick.
  • The day is beautiful; a sharp blue sky is dotted with wispy white clouds, all commas and curlicues.
  • There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight.