Half Girlfriend, by Chetan Bhagat

Half Girlfriend follows the complicated relationship between Madhav Jha and Riya Somani, who meet at college in Delhi.

Madhav is heir of  a faded “royal” family from a poor Indian town where his mother manages and teaches at the local impoverished school. Riya’s family is ultra-rich, a fact she finds limiting, as family and class expectations hinder her personal dreams.

Madhav falls for Riya at first sight and a shared interest in basketball gives him the hope of initiating and furthering a relationship with her; but while Riya encourages close friendship, she makes it clear that she doesn’t want a full “girlfriend-boyfriend” relationship, a situation Madhav finds hard to accept. What does Riya mean by “half girlfriend” anyway?

Through breakup, forgiveness, reconciliation and heartbreak the relationship between the two is never easy when each seems to want something different. What would it take for their situation to be resolved?

And what roles do the book’s  author (Chetan Bhagat himself) and Bill Gates play in the couple’s attempt to maintain their relationship despite their differing desires and expectations?


This is another book I found while trawling through the shelves of  a local charity shop. I’ve been looking for books by authors of non-western backgrounds because I find they give a different perspective to “western” writers.

Half Girlfriend could be included in the same kind of  category as Mike Gayle’s books: stories I can always rely on to help me overcome “reader’s block” – when I need to read a book I know I won’t be able to put down until its finished. Mike Gayle is someone I turn to when I’ve read one too many “worthy” novels and need to rediscover a love of reading for reading’s sake, when story is given priority over the author’s clever wordplay. I found this book had  a similar appeal to Gayle’s work, the main differences being its setting and the cultural background of the characters, both of which play a significant part of the story.

As evidence of how much I enjoyed the book, I chose to order a boxed set of 8 of Bhagat’s books (which includes a new copy of this one). He’s someone whose work I’d like to read beyond this one story.

In trying to find out more about his writing, I found that some of his books have been adapted into Bollywood films. Half Girlfriend seems to be the most recent adaptation. After watching the trailer (see below), I hope it’s a film that will eventually be released on DVD.

According to what I’ve read about Bhagat, his first language isn’t English, but he writes in English for a mainly Indian readership and sells far fewer copies outside of India than he does in his homeland. After reading half way through my charity-store copy I came across the receipt from the original book purchase: at an airport shop in Mumbai (for 176 Indian Rupees).

The following description of Bhagat was in the Guardian:

…the 39-year-old Punjabi is one of India’s most successful English-language novelists currently at work. Unlike Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga, however, he has not been adopted by London’s literati, anointed the “authentic” voice of the subcontinent and exported back to a fawning welcome by India’s anglophone elite. Nor is Bhagat’s phenomenal success (with six novels shifting 7 million copies) due to foreign sales and profile – of which he has very little. It’s more to do with his intimacy with lower-born Indians, whose restricted hopes, humdrum work, romantic dramas, family tensions and sense of humour he has shared and sympathises with.


The article also notes that his work has been described as “Hornby-lite”, a reference to Nick Hornby, another writer I enjoy whose work, along with Mike Gayle, has been pejoratively described as lad-lit. A term used as a comparison to “chick-lit”.

Lad Lit is a fictional genre of male-authored novels about young men and their emotional and personal lives, often characterized by a confessional and humorous writing style. The term combines the word “lad,” which refers to a boy or young man and “lit,” which is short for “literature.”









number9dream, David Mitchell

number9dreamI’ve liked most of what I’ve read of David Mitchell’s work.

He writes in interesting ways – never satisfied in telling a story in the most straight forward way, he experiments with genres, styles and, writing forms; even in the same novel, and somehow manages to keep it all coherent.

In number9dream, 19 year old Eiji Miyake has moved to Tokyo to search for the father he’s never known. Every step taken leads him to a disappointing, often dangerous  detour, sometimes real, other times not. Alternating between actual experience and various imagined scenarios.

Mitchell seems to have a talent for incorporating incidents and dialogue with potential to offend or disgust; yet not gratuitous offence for the sake of it.

Those occasions are used sparingly to spotlight the deep moral corruption of a character’s make-up. In this book there are some scenes of gruesome, brutal violence, effectively showing the world of the Yakuza, (powerful Japanese organised crime figures) into which Eiji stumbles.

I enjoyed a lot of this book but it definitely isn’t my favourite example of Mitchell’s work.  One section in particular didn’t work for me, more or less a story within the story, where the protagonist is hiding away for a time and discovers a writer’s manuscripts. The content of the manuscript stories is alternated with the main narrative of the book, but I haven’t got a clue why. To me it seemed like padding and lacked the coherence I mentioned above.

The end of the book was also a disappointment. For those who’ve seen David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive: I felt the book’s concluding section took a surrealist bent like the end of that movie… and then it just

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

ghostwrittenI have strong but mixed feelings about David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten.

I love his style and the way he structures this collection of inter-related stories, but some of the content of those stories is jarringly crude.

It’s a similar issue I’ve found with a lot of Stephen King’s books, but unlike King, Mitchell’s occasional use of crudity doesn’t come across as gratuitous but plays a consistent part in revealing character. It’s not to my taste, but I can see the purpose it serves.

Apart from that issue, I found more than enough to enjoy in Ghostwritten. While at times individual stories seemed unfinished, there are clues in following (and even preceding) stories that provided some resolution: incidental characters in one story reappear as major players in another; ripples from events here can become significant there.

Part of the pleasure of the book is re-meeting people who it seemed had been left behind in an earlier part of the book, even if their re-introduction is fleeting and they merely pass through a scene with apparently no effect. They bring an interconnectedness that highlights the roles that chance and choice play in lives of protagonists. Coincidental connections, brief meetings can be insignificant to one, but life changing (even lifesaving) to the other, setting the path for important events to come.

There are some similarities in style to Mitchell’s later book Cloud Atlas, another novel constructed from a collection of intersecting shorter stories in which the shadows of characters’ lives are cast beyond their individual stories. Some characters from Ghostwritten also reappear in Cloud Atlas and other Mitchell books, extending character inter-relationships beyond an individual novel. It’s an aspect of Mitchell’s work that I love, and it’s something I’d previously seen in Tim Winton’s work. I find it creates a sense of authenticity to their fictional worlds, where the lives of people can carry on beyond the experiences that made their own stories worth telling, and how they can play some part in the stories of others.

It’s the kind of thing I think I would have tried myself if I’d been more diligent and persistent with my hope of being a writer, if I’d been disciplined enough to push myself to write despite the lack of deadlines and the need to complete obligatory assignments: those things that forced me to be productive in my university years.

Books (and writers) like those mentioned above excite me – but also stir a sense of regret. They are reminders of why I wanted to be a writer, but also of the opportunities I let slip by.

Another reason for mixed feelings.

Funny Girl, Nick Hornby

funny girl

Nick Hornby was another safe bet. Another author who could be trusted to help me out of the book-reading difficulties I had last year.

One of the appealing things about Funny Girl was its nostalgia; there were a lot of references to people and events from my childhood.

That element of nostalgia is also what appealed to me in the first Nick Horny book I read, Fever Pitch. That book brought back memories of attending football matches with my dad, standing on the terraces, mostly to see his favourite team, Derby County, but when the opportunity arose, to see my team, Stoke City.

And then there was the film adaptation of Fever Pitch starring Colin Firth. Scenes of him attending games and being physically carried along with the ebb and flow of surging spectators brought back experiences I’d forgotten of being part of similar football crowds.

With Funny Girl the nostalgia wasn’t quite so personally relevant. It brought back the flavour of an era (1960s England) rather than memories of my own experiences. The nostalgic familiarity was in the setting more than in the characters and their situations, possibly because I was much younger than the book’s characters when I lived through the 60s

I enjoyed Funny Girl, but perhaps not as much as previous Hornby books. For me the tone throughout remained too light. Even through potentially confrontational situations, there seemed to be little sense of real loss or grief, or any other strong emotional connection.

Earlier this week I mentioned to the readers of another blog that I was approaching the end of the book and said: “the thing that is standing out is the lack of any real difficulties in the character’s lives. Everything seems to fall into place easily for them and there’s been no real conflict. There’s still time I suppose, but if something like that happens in the remaining 50 pages I think it will be too much of a change of tone.”

An example of what I mean is the way the lead character Barbara chooses to move from Blackpool to London to chase her dream of emulating her heroine, Lucille Ball, by becoming a comic actress. In a very short time she is lucky enough to accidently cross paths with a theatre agent willing to support her until he finds her work. And very soon after finds herself in the right place at the right time with the right people, to become the star of a popular sitcom written specially around her.

And that’s the way it continues until the “remaining 50 pages” that I mentioned above. Around that point of the book the tone does change, but not harshly enough to grate with what came before. The lightness remains, but a degree of melancholy is added to the mix when we have the characters are brought into the present day, looking back at the successes or failures they’ve had throughout the years.

I felt that latter part of the book was more like the Hornby writing I’ve enjoyed in the past, where the ongoing humour is balanced with something a little darker that gives the story more emotional ambiguity. Until that final section, I felt the book lacked that depth.

Mercy and Imprisonment

The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

shape of mercy Gloria has a few books by Susan Meissner. She told me one of them included references to Lady Jane Grey. I’ve been fascinated with Jane since my pre-teens and in recent years I’ve read a few books (both fiction and non-fiction) about her.

A few days ago I needed a new book to read in my work lunch break and decided on the Susan Meissner book. I read three or four chapters before I started to realise something was slightly amiss. I’d picked up the wrong book, and instead of reading about Lady Jane, I was heading into the Salem witch trials.
But it was a good mistake to make. It brought me to a very enjoyable book that I might not have otherwise read.

Lauren Durough is a college student from a very well-to-do family who wants to make her own way in the world. She finds work transcribing a centuries old diary written by Mercy Hayworth, a victim of the Salem witch trials, for an elderly descendant of the Hayworth family. Her relationship with the diary and its owner challenge Lauren to face up to the way her preconceptions colour her judgement of others.

While the book was bought from a Christian book shop, it isn’t an overtly “Christian” book. God is accepted by some characters, and there are references to church going, but there is no preachiness and no blatant religious message.

The Fearless Passage of Steven Kim, by Carl Herzig with Steven Kim
Steven KimThe Fearless Passage of Steven Kim was another Christian book shop purchase bought on a recent trip to Canberra. It was one of three books I found about people practising their faith in places where there’s little room for complacency, where following Jesus can lead to persecution, imprisonment or even death.

I often feel the need to have my own complacency shaken. It’s far too easy to take our faith for granted when it’s never seriously challenged. How strong would I be if my life was on the line because I believe in Jesus?

Born in South Korea, Steven Kim moved to the United States with very few resources, but with dedication and hard work he achieved his goal of making large amounts of money, building million dollar businesses from nothing. Basing himself more and more in China, away from his wife and children in the US, Kim recognised that his pursuit of wealth didn’t bring the fulfilment he’d expected, so he looked again to the Christian faith he’d (nominally) followed in his younger days and joined an underground church in the industrial area where his business was based. When the church began to be frequented by “illegals” from Northern Korea, Kim started to work on helping them and other North Korean refugees to move out of China, towards a future in South Korea.

Unfortunately for Kim, helping “illegal immigrants” in this way, led to his arrest and imprisonment. Sentenced to prisons and work camps, Kim pushed the boundaries of Chinese hostility to religious practices to run bible studies and worship services within each prison he was sent to. He successfully shares the gospel with many leading some to faith in Jesus.

All of this seems like inspirational stuff – exactly the kind of thing I was hoping the book would be. But, there was something that made me uneasy at times; a discomfort that I tried to suppress. Who was I to question the experience of someone standing firm under such conditions. Who was I, in the comfort and “freedom” of the West, to find fault in what Kim experienced and what he did?
And then I came to a part in the book that perhaps brought clarity to my unease:

“…[Steven] recalled Moon, his Buddhist cell mate… Steven had tried to convert him to Christianity…and for a while Moon had joined him in prayer. But when Steven had pressed him to give up his Buddhist beliefs and practices, Moon had resisted; in the end, Steven’s pressure had pushed Moon away. Maybe I was too hard on him, Steven thought. Maybe sometimes people have to find their faith in different ways.
“He thought of Jesus’ words of comfort from John 14:1-2: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ He had told His disciples. ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms.’
“Humbled, Steven wondered for the first time if their might not be rooms in the kingdom of God for souls like Moon and Oki [another Buddhist cell-mate] too. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (verse 6), Jesus had continued, but Steven wondered whether there were many paths leading to Christ.”

I feel there is a disturbing ambiguity expressed there, suggesting that other “faiths” (like Buddhism) provide alternative ways to Christ and God.

The House That Was Eureka by Nadia Wheatley

img-Z03150520-0001I have a vague recollection (probably faulty) that Nadia Wheatley gave a lunch time talk when I was at university. It would have been sometime between 1990 and 1993. Or maybe it never happened at all.

At that time, all I would have known of her work was My Place, a book following the various inhabitants of the same house over several decades. Recently I watched, and enjoyed, the ABC TV series inspired by the book.

The House That Was Eureka, preceded My Place, but has the similarity of covering two periods in the history of a Newtown terrace house; periods that intersect, overlap and blend in the dreams and experiences of characters from those two periods.

During the Great Depression, as unemployment escalated and rent payments fell into arrears, landlords started evicting tenants who failed to pay up. As resistance to the evictions escalated, the police were increasingly brought in to deal with those refusing to leave. In response tenants were joined by other protestors, barricading themselves into their homes with barbed wire, boarded up windows and doors and tonnes of sandbags. The evictions therefore grew increasingly violent with serious casualties on both sides. This little known historical scenario forms the heart of this novel.

203 Liberty Street is the new home of 16 year old Evie and her family. From the day she moves in, Evie starts to experience strange dreams and noises that seem to be associated with events 50 years earlier when the house was the site of an enforced eviction. Is history repeating or have two time periods merged bringing confusion of identity between the residents of 1931 and those of 1981? Why are the “present day” occupants of Liberty Street moved by the events of the past? To what extent do those past events intrude into their lives and are there links deeper than a common address? And to what extent can the wrongs of the past be turned around?

For some reason this book brings to mind Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Red Shift, both of which involve the intersection of time periods and characters from the “present” reliving historical events, or at least experiencing the emotions of those who experienced the original events. Garner’s books have a clear mythical even mystical quality, but Wheatley’s novel, while utilising a degree of mystery and at times appearing like a ghost story, is set on a historical foundation, giving insight into the real hardships faced by thousands, caused by a situation far outside of their control.

Here is a news report of the kind of event that inspired the book.

The Girl Who Didn’t Know Kelly, by David Martin

Girl Who Didn't KnowFollowing on from a book about Ned Kelly’s mum, here is another book related to the well-known bushranger. This one is a “Young Adult” novel dating from the mid 1980s.

The book is based in Beechworth (a favourite place of mine where I’ve spent several short holidays) a town that has many connections to Kelly. He he was tried in the courthouse and spent time imprisoned in the town jail, as did members of his family, and it was from Beechworth that he was sent to be tried in Melbourne after the famous Glenrowan seige. It was thought that an impartial jury would be impossible to find from around Beechworth because of the strong support he had among many of the local population.

Katherine Grimshaw, known as Kit, is the daughter of a Beechworth banker. She finds herself caught between the town’s different classes, witnessing and recognising some of the injustices and inequalities experienced by many while living a privileged life herself. She finds there are often no easy and glib answers to the difficult issues that arise as she finds herself caught between family and friend.

Once again Ned Kelly doesn’t dominate the book, but his story provides background colour and context as well as inspiring Kit to consider some important questions about life and death in her community.