Category: Books

All Four Stars – A Book Review

All Four Stars – A Book Review

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman

Here’s a scrumptiously wonderful book every tween is going to love. All Four Stars is the story of Gladys Gatsby, an eleven-year-old who is passionate about cooking. Her parents, on the other hand, are not. They are both working and don’t have the time or inclination to cook. The family lives on terrible takeaways.

However, Gladys cooks up complicated delicacies in secret, when her parents are away at work. All is well until one day when her parents walk in just as she accidentally sets fire to the kitchen curtains while making Creme Brûlée. As a result of that singularly bad piece of luck, she’s banned from further cooking experiments and her allowance is taken away.

Then, through a quirk of fate, she lands an assignment as a food critic in a frontline newspaper. The catch is – getting to that restaurant which is a train-ride away from the suburb where Gladys lives. Confiding in her parents and asking for help is out of the question. So how does she do it?

This is a story delicious enough to sate the most demanding of gourmands.

It’s a perfect read-aloud book
Each night after dinner, we’d sit with this one, the children and I, reading it aloud. The descriptions of food made H hungry while N started dreaming of a career as a food critic.

What I liked
The descriptions of food were absolutely delectable. The good ones (that she had at Parm’s house or out at restaurants) were mouth-watering but it’s the bad ones that H and N enjoyed most because they were hilariously funny.

I loved that Gladys sampled and enjoyed all kinds of food – African, Malaysian and Indian too. She has an Indian friend and the rather foreign descriptions of familiar Indian foods like chhole and raita and palak paneer had the children completely thrilled.

If you’ve read any of my earlier reviews you’ll know I love a book with great side-characters. All Four Stars had many of them – Sandy, Gladys’ friend and neighbour, Parm, her Indian friend, Charissa the most popular girl at school, the kind Mr Eng who runs a cosy grocery and patisserie and Mrs Anderson, Sandy’s adorable mom. Although some of them are rather stereotypical they all manage to do something to redeem themselves, to break the stereotype. That, I was grateful for.

There are bits on friendship – on making and keeping friends – on shared secrets and making plans which the children completely loved.

If I have one complaint it would be that the author didn’t do justice to the parents. They come across as uni-dimensional, too taken up with their work, barely bothered about their daughter and rather unkind. They did get better towards the end of the book, though, so that was something.

We talked about
Whether the punishment Gladys got was fair/unfair.
Could Gladys have done things differently? Perhaps, taken the help of other sympathetic adults.

What we did
– We read up all kinds of cuisines that Gladys talks of.
– We pored (and salivated) endlessly over food pictures.
– We made up a game of trying to describe a food to someone who had never known Indian cuisine.
– And we tried baking.

This book came to us through Enchantico – a delightful book-activity box we subscribed to. Read my review of the box here. It came with a cookie recipe, premixed flour as well as cookie cutters.

With all that help we had to try our hand at baking. The first batch came out near perfect. But then we got caught up in something and ended up burning down the next one and had to rush around dousing the flames in the oven.

So you see, there really is never any guarantee with cookies but the book – that’s a sure shot winner.


Linking up with the Write Tribe Problogger October 2017 Blogging Challenge #writebravely #writetribeproblogger

Confessions of a book snob

Confessions of a book snob

It really is true that despite years of living with someone, despite spending each waking-sleeping moment with him-her, you don’t really get to know them.

I’m talking about me. After years of thinking myself a liberal, only recently I realised I was a snob, a book snob.

But first I must present my defence.

I come from a generation when we had few distractions – no TVs, no computers, not even phones to chat away with friends and no friends other than school friends. School was a good 10 kms away which by the standards of those times was pretty much in the ‘jungle’.So what did we do in the long summer vacations, Christmas breaks and weekends when we were stuck together – just the two of us, my sister and I? We read and we bonded, perfectly.

The other thing was that we went to a school run by strict Irish nuns who set high reading standards. The books we got were screened, I am sure. We had ‘age appropriate’ cupboards neatly labelled with the class they were suited to. We weren’t allowed comics till after class VI, not even Amar Chitra Kathas. We had to choose one book of fiction, one biography and one Hindi book each week. We had to have a book mark and a book cover failing which we weren’t allowed a book. All wonderful habits, I might add. Habits I cherish and I’m very proud of. Habits I wish I was better at inculcating in my children.

And so I grew up on Enid Blyton, Louisa Alcott, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and then – Georgette Heyers and Victoria Holts.

Later, I spent years at the news desk meticulously changing ‘color’ to ‘colour’, correcting grammar, following the ‘right’ way and getting more and more set in that right way, more sure than ever that I knew what was best when it came to reading.

I lost touch with kids’ books till I had kids of my own some two decades later.

What a rude shock that was!

Children’s books had undergone some kind of metamorphosis, and how! Peppered with pictures and illustrations, arrows and diagrams, doodles and drawings with coloured text jumping at you from unexpected places, with font that changed like a shape shifter! An unwarranted assault on my senses! What were these? Half-comic-half-book-half scribbled notes? Mongrelised reads, all.

I saw Midsummer Night’s Dream as a comic and I was devastated. Here I was, a purist, who had Shakespeare stamped upon her memory, who could recite Merchant of Venice at will.. “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes..”

Yeah, that was me and then there were George and Harold from Captain Underpants blasphemously dropping all sense of spelling and grammar. Sacrilege! How could I allow it?

I pushed forward my favourites. Noddy, Faraway Tree, Wishing Chair, Amelia Jane. As if in an act of rebellion, the children rejected the lot. Each of them. I was heartbroken and I gave up on my kids as non-readers.

Then then one day I saw my son all of six with his head stuck into Captain Underpants laughing out loud. He started to follow me around with a mama, ‘Listen to this, please, it’s so funny.’ And I was forced to re-evaluate my attitude. A book that held the power to not just get a six year old to sit quietly but also to make him laugh with such abandon couldn’t be all bad. Things had changed and I had to admit it.

Books are now not competing with other books. They are competing with television, the iPad, the PS-3 and the lure of friends at the door. They have to squeeze themselves between dance class and karate class, hold their own with Monopoly and Topple, fight off the Barbies and the Power rangers.

It cannot be easy.

What they need, desperately, are friends, friends not book racists, not heartless, judgmental critics. Friends, among parents, teachers and all sensible adults. Friends who would understand why they have had to change avatars, why they have to dress themselves up as graphic novels and comics.

Besides, wasn’t Enid Blyton banned in schools in her time? Isn’t Roald Dahl irreverent and gory and yes, rude? Who’s to judge the good and the bad? By all means ban the obscene, ban the bad language, ban the overtly violent but stop there. Rather than choosing just the best, reject just the worst. Let more of them make the cut.God knows our kids need them way more than they need our kids.

Starting a book club

Starting a book club

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, often something good stems from something not so good.

N plays every evening with a bunch of girls. Since it’s a mixed crowd across age groups, they often end up simply ‘hanging’ out much like teenagers : chatting, arguing and sometimes fighting, often ending in tears for at least one of them.

Many times I have tried to make peace but convincing a group of 11- 12 year olds to give up prejudices, however temporary, is hard. After N came home on two consecutive days crying since the girls had ‘boycotted’ her for some reason I decided to do something about it. In no way am I implying she’s always a victim. I am sure there are days she’s at the other end too.

I’ve often shared here, how I’ve been trying to get the kids to take to reading and also that that I’ve had little success.

I’d been toying with the idea of a book club for a long time and I thought it would be a great diversion for the girls. It would give them something constructive to think about and talk about. And so The Book Club was born and inaugurated this Saturday, without any fanfare, I might add!

Here’s the plan

1. The children meet each Saturday for an hour. They get a story to read which they have to finish till the next meeting.
2. Since none of them are into heavy reading, it shall be short stories first. If the story is too long it’ll be broken up into parts. Or we’ll take up excerpts.
3. When we meet the following Saturday we’ll talk about the book.
– one of the kids will do a short recap.
– we’ll pick some tricky words to talk about.
– pick some characters to discuss – their favourite ones, what they liked or didn’t like
– we’ll discuss alternative endings or anything else that takes our fancy
4. And – this one’s purely to keep the kids hooked – we’ll do an activity based on the book. It could be drawing a scene from the book, or acting out a sequence, or dressing up like the characters.
5. Oh and one last thing to keep the kids coming – there’ll be some snacks too!!

We’ll have a few rules

… For what’s a club without rules?
1. Read the book before you come to the meeting
2. No interruptions. Raise your hand if you do have to interrupt.
3. Listen to each speaker
4. Address the group not individuals.
5. Be polite
6. Any problem? Suggestions. Do discuss. 
(I find the stories too long, too short, too simple, too tough. 
I have exams I will not be able to read the story.)
7. If you cannot come to a meeting let us know in advance.

So this Saturday we had our first meeting

Since it was the first class and the kids hadn’t been given a story I asked them to draw a scene from their favourite story and let the others guess what it was. We had a Mermaid, a Rapunzel, a Cinderella, A Red Riding Hood, an Alice in Wonderland and even a Supandi.
Then I gave them the story for the next week. A simple one called ‘The Dragon Rock’ (I have to keep H enthused also, you see). Since we had time I got each of the kids to read a paragraph from the story. They had so much fun that we might make book reading a regular feature.
I am keeping it an open exercise as of now because I don’t know what the kids will like. I don’t even know if they’ll keep coming but I sure as hell am going to try.


On next week’s agenda a craft activity : Making a dragon
and a brand new story.

Now here’s where I need your help… 

This is a first for me and I’m pretty much on my own so I’m hoping you guys can be my sounding board. 
1. If you have any tips about book clubs do let me know.

2. If you can think of book related activities drop me a line.

3. If you know of any short stories that would appeal to the age group of 6-12 ping me please, specially ones from other cultures – Chinese folk tales or Russian stories. I’m leaving out Panchatantra and other Indian stories since the kids might have read them and the novelty factor is essential to keep them hooked. Links would be hugely appreciated since I can print out the stories.
Z is for Zadie Smith

Z is for Zadie Smith

Born 1975
From the age of 5 to 15 Zadie Smith wanted to be an actress. She was pretty good at tap dancing and dreamt of starring in a musical. By the time she was in her mid teens she realised there were hardly any musicals being made and decided to part with that dream. And then writing happened.

She was born in London to a British father and Jamaican mother who migrated to Britain in 1969. She was christened Sadie Smith. At 14 she changed her name to Zadie. Interestingly a love for music runs in the family as two of her younger brothers are rappers.

Her debut

… was the stuff of fairy tales. At the University while studying English Literature she published a few short stories for a collection of new student writing called Mays Anthology. A publisher read those stories and offered her a contract for her first book, which made her go in search of a literary agent. Seems like a dream debut, doesn’t it? 
On the basis of a partial manuscript her book was auctioned among publishers. During her final year at Cambridge she finished her book, White Teeth. It was an runaway success. So overwhelmed was she that she went into a writer’s block. “I think (the success of this book is) a surprise which will last me my whole life,” she said in an interview. Her second book Autograph Man also proved to be a success.

White Teeth 

…began as a short story except it was hardly short, more of a Novella. And so she decided to expand it into a full sized novel. It spans three generations telling the story of two friends, World War II veterans Archie and Samad. It follows their lives and then of their children who pick varied paths in life. It touches upon issues of immigrants, war, religion and friendship. I liked the way the book jumps back and forth between England, Jamaica and Bangladesh bringing it all alive through vibrant descriptions.

On writing

…. Smith has rather interesting views. First, she doesn’t believe in creative writing classes. She dismisses them as ‘support groups for writers who find writing therapeutic’.  And writing’s no therapy, she feels. She advises extensive reading as the best way to become a writer. “The more people you read the better writer you become,” she says.
She likes to write in ‘any small room with no natural lighting’. She’s quite the rule breaker when it comes to a writing regime. Some days she writes all day and some days she cannot get beyond two hours. She hates being told about successful authors who follow specific regimes. 

Isn’t that heartening? Perhaps it IS okay to do things your own way and follow no one at all. So it doesn’t matter that Enid Blyton wrote 10,000 words a day in her ‘red’ room, or that Ian Fleming needed to get away to Jamaica each year to get that novel done, or that Dahl moved to his tiny shed away from the house. All one needs to do to become a writer is do things her own way and write from the heart.


And finally that’s The End! The April A to Z Challenge ends today and I really have no idea what I’ll do with myself. Looking forward to visiting all you lovely people now.

This post is part of the April A to Z Challenge, 2014 for the theme AMAZING AUTHORS.

Also linking to the Ultimate Blog Challenge.

Y is for Yiyun Li

Y is for Yiyun Li

Born 1972

Though born a Chinese, English is her chosen language of expression. Yiyun Li was born in Beijing China. As a student of Immunology she moved to America for further studies in 1996 intending to become a researcher just like her parents wanted her to. She had never written anything and writing was far from her mind. 

Writing happened quite by chance

During her days in America she attended an evening community writing class. She followed it up with more classes. Meanwhile she wrote some short stories. One of her stories, Immortality, was read by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Alen Mc Pherson. He was so excited he tracked Li down through a friend and sent a message saying she must continue too write. That made up her mind for her. A writer she did become.

Short stories and more..

Yiyun Li draws her subjects from China. Most of her stories are about small powerless people. Perhaps that’s why they are often cynical, tragic and frustrating. Her first book, which includes the story, Immortality, was a short story collection titled A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. I like her stories but more than that I like the glimpse of China she offers. Bits of history, the mood of the people, life under a dictatorship – all of that woven together in heat rending tales. Her writing is richly sprinkled with Chinese mythology and Chinese proverbs that she translates into English lending it a quaint quality.

The novel

Set in the 1970s The Vagrants is her debut novel. It opens with the gruesome hanging of a young woman and goes on to explore how different people in the city react to it. This one is no cheerful read, nor is it for those with weak stomachs. You despair as you find the eyes of dictatorship everywhere, corrupting everything and everyone, allowing for no escape. It reminded me a bit of George Orwell’s 1984. This one however is way more gruesome and graphic in gory detail. Not really my kind of book.

In China..

…Li refuses to release her books. They have been translated into over 20 languages but not in her native Mandarin. In a number if interviews she has said she feels China is not ready for her books just as much a she is not ready for them to be read in her country of birth.
Talking about whether her books represent China and its way of life she says, “It’s never my job to explain China.. We never ask an American writer to represent America or a British writer to represent Britain.” Yet it seems unavoidable that her characters are taken to depict China. Reminds me how Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth has come to represent China of another age.


And finally it’s time for the last post tomorrow. This last author, is half British, half Jamaican and aspired to be an actress before the literary world beckoned.

This post is part of the April A to Z Challenge, 2014 for the theme AMAZING AUTHORS.

Also linking to the Ultimate Blog Challenge.

On my other blog: Beat About The Book

The Girl Who Drank the Moon #BookReview

The Girl Who Drank the Moon #BookReview

Book: The Girl Who Drank the MoonAuthor: Kelly Barnhill This is the story of a town, a cursed town. On its outskirts lies a greater forest. In this forest lives a wicked old witch. The witch demands sacrifice and so each year an infant is taken away by the town elders and left in the […]