Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

This post is a little 'after the fact', especially considering that I started reading the book about a year ago, right when it came out. It didn't take me a year to read it, barely a month, actually. I just took a year long break from it (I don't remember why) until a few days ago, when I read the remaining two hundred pages in a gleeful daze. It's a great book and I want to kick myself for not finishing it and being able to say this earlier. It's a shocking, sad, fantastic book. The weird thing is, I possibly couldn't tell you just exactly why it was so great. But I could try.

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

In a way, nothing really surprising happened. It was a run-off-the-mill story, or a bunch of intricately woven, typical, small-town stories with nothing really new and Quidditch-ey popping out unexpectedly. Which may be one of the two reasons that Harry Potter fans couldn't appreciate this book. The other could be the expectation that it would be anything like Harry Potter, content-wise. Since she made it plenty clear beforehand that The Casual Vacancy would be an adult novel, that hope was simply silly. The first point is something I'd partly agree with. The story, the actual incidents that took place - the drug-addicted mom, the 'lost cause' girl, the secrets, the lies, they were all predictable in the way that any non-fantasy set in a small town is. The story wasn't new because it was realistic. That being said, I do believe the book had a magic of its own. For a while now, what with reading Discworld, discovering Neil Gaiman and other fantastic authors, I've wondered if I was a bit too obsessed with Harry Potter, if it was a tiny bit overrated. But I was wrong. J. K. Rowling is an amazing writer and she's managed to turn what could have been a really dull book into something quite unique. She has created the most interesting characters, even the ones we get just a glimpse of. She can really look inside people's heads, young and old, and has described their thoughts with a frank honesty that most of us don't even grant ourselves. In the oddest way, Barry Fairbrother, the dead guy who is only talked about, ends up being the most rounded character in the book. The book makes a point that is at once blatant and very subtle. And in a very Harry Potteresque way, it ends with a running gag. It was when I read that very last line that I realized just how awesome the book was.

Here's a review by someone who isn't a Harry Potter fanatic. You know, a fair review.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Reading P. G. Wodehouse

Over the years, I have had people heap scorn on me for not reading Wodehouse and yet claiming to enjoy English humour. I was told endlessly that I was missing the 'real stuff' and had to learn the hard way, that there was such a thing as a coolness factor even in the seemingly above-that-kind-of-crap world of books. Finally, last winter, I found myself reading a book I was generously gifted on my birthday, - Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by P. G. Wodehouse - eager to discover what all the fuss was about and ever so slightly desperate to fall back in the good graces of the cooler among us readers.

Far be it from me to disagree with Stephen Fry, whose blurb of delighted praise, the same one, stubbornly appears on every single Wodehouse book I own; but I didn't as enjoy reading the books as I hoped to. I did like the language, don't get me wrong, the multi-layered (which I hear is the word everyone uses to describe it) apt humour and the constant realizations it sent through me that none of it could have been written any other way. It was a stroll through language heaven.

But here's the thing: I always picture true makes-you-laugh-out-loud humour floating through space on a turtle, which, you have to admit, is far more imaginative. I've only read three Wodehouse(s?) but the plots were all recycled. The confusions, misapprehensions and the solutions were all quite the same. And hilariously portrayed, though they were (am I being oddly defensive in my criticism?), they were rather dull. I like stories, almost as much as I like humour. After a while, I stopped wanting to find out about Wooster's odd ex-love interests and apparent re-interests and his insufferable neighbours and relatives and the nice Carson-ly Jeeves. The characterizations, for me, were somewhat irrelevant, considering my yardstick to judge the Englishman stereotypes is more fiction. For all I know, it may have as much truth in it as every Indian guy's accent on an American show. 

After making me laugh and smirk and snicker for a day or two: when I was done, the books made me slightly wary and drained of patience, in that: that was all good, but not another, please. At the end of the day, if I want a laugh, I'll go back to my four trusted elephants.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Running With the Enemy by Lloyd Lofthouse

A red flare shot into the sky telling the Marines to return to the landing zone for departure.

Ethan trembled and shook himself as if he were a wet dog, then rolled over beside her instead of on top of her. She smelled the coppery scent of his blood. "Hell!" he said, and pushed her into a narrow space between clumps of bamboo. "After I cover you, stay here until we are gone. Why are you here? This is not where you live. You should be washing clothes at Luu's where you will be safer."

No one is ever safe anywhere, she thought, and then said, "Ethan?" The tears in her eyes blurred her vision. She reached for him, wanting him to take her away from this war, but he slipped out of her reach.

Summary: In this suspense thriller set during the Vietnam War, Victor Ortega is a rogue CIA agent, and he needs someone to blame for his crimes. Recon Marine Ethan Card is the perfect patsy. As a teen, Ethan ran with a Chicago street gang, and he has a criminal record. He also has a secret lover, Tuyen, who is half Vietnamese and half French.
Tuyen is a stunning, beautiful Viet Cong resistance fighter. 
Since she was a young child, Tuyen has lived under the control of her brutal, older, sexually abusive half-brother, Giap, a ruthless and powerful Viet Cong leader, who has forced her to kill Americans in battle or die if she refuses.
When Ethan discovers he is going to be court marshaled for weapons he did not sell to the Viet Cong and Tuyen will be arrested and end up in an infamous South Vietnamese prison, where she will be tortured and raped, he hijacks a U.S. Army helicopter and flees with Tuyen across Southeast Asia while struggling to prove his innocence.
Victor Ortega and Giap—working together with the support of an unwitting American general—will stop at nothing to catch the two, and the hunt is on.
The star-crossed lovers travel across Laos to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat; to Bangkok, Thailand, and then to Burma’s Golden Triangle where Ethan and Tuyen face a ruthless drug lord and his gang.
In the rainforests of Burma, Ethan also discovers Ortega and Giap have set in motion a massive assault on his Marine unit’s remote base in South Vietnam with the goal of killing the man he admires most, Colonel Edward Price, who is the only one who believes Ethan is innocent.
Ethan must risk everything to save Price and his fellow Marines. Will he succeed?
My thoughts: A fair warning: this book is not for the squeamish. There's a lot of sex, violence and lot of swearing. All the gory details are bound to make anyone queasy, they are haunting and described vividly.

I liked Ethan Card, for the way he was neither all bad nor all good. At times, I was completely annoyed by him. The characters, Ethan included, were realistic. Sure, the villians were inexplicably mean and cruel but the protagonists weren't all angels either. The relationship between Ethan and Tuyen seemed abrupt in the first fifty something pages, when so many things happened so quickly. But the relationship is dwelt on later, and it sort of grows into something believable: a desperate grasp at some sort of meaning or purpose in such a terrifying world. Two people falling in love, having an affair, running off together is just cheesy enough to ring true. The author relies majorly, according to me, on dialogue to take the story forward and is one of the few authors I have read who can write good dialogue. For Ortega, I found the characteristic way he talked to be a bit limited, and therefore, unrealistic; in contrast, Tuyen's speech is written wonderfully.

The chapters and scenes are very short and the story is constantly spiralling off into something new. There are a lot of details, many minor characters to focus on, so I needed to pay attention closely while reading. It's not a breezy read and wouldn't be enjoyed when distracted. I liked the descriptions of the different locations, how there were little information dumps. But I notice far too many similes, to describe just about everything. I do know that a good metaphor is a sign of a good author, but after a while they seemed kind of silly, nothing was straightforward bad or big or loud.

The book was very fast and I could read it within a few days. It had me engaged completely from the very first chapter and I was certainly curious to see how things would turn out. The violence did turn me off a bit and I wish there was less of that. But, hey, you can't exactly change the war. So which it was a little too much, I appreciated that it seemed realistic. The book wasn't biased on any side of the war and the author has sort of left us to wonder about all the things he's written, not really presenting us with one opinion but a swarm of them to choose from. It seems like he's written what he really does know, and that is why, it is easy to ignore any flaws that come to mind: because, the book is honest. It isn't just another action-packed, adventure, thriller but has something more to offer. And you rarely get to say that with a review copy, so I'm certainly glad I got the chance to read this. You can buy a copy of Running With the Enemy here.

I got an email a few days ago, and another, saying Running with the Enemy was awarded Runner Up in General Fiction at the 2013 Beach Book Festival and honorable mention general fiction at the 2013 New York Book Festival recently and I've to say I'm not surprised. Books about wars all seem to be almost the same and this one offers a new perspective of sorts. It's not the best book I've ever read, but it's nice and I am sure many will love it.

If I had to give this a rating, which I suppose I do (this is a blog tour), it'd be somewhere between three and four stars.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review. For more reviews, view the Tour Schedule at the Virtual Authors Book Tours website.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Pictured: The library copy of Ishiguro's Nocturnes with its beautiful blue cover and beside it, my favourite bookmark.

After really enjoying An Artist of the Floating World and recently, Never Let Me Go, I had certain expectations from this book. In a way, it's very typically Ishiguro and in another, it's really not what I had in mind.

Nocturnes is a collection of short stories, as the title says: five short stories of music and nightfall. I loved two, fairly liked another two, and was entirely confused and disappointed by one. The book has a nostalgic, almost silly romantic air to it and shows the way music intensely affects people and relationships. The stories are tied together by a sense of lingering regret. There are some recurring characters.

Crooner: This is the first story in the collection and one that I really loved. A Polish guitar player meets the once famous musician Tony Gardner at a piazza where he spends time playing for various groups, bored by the monotony of his life. After spending a day with Tony Gardner, our narrator realizes that his idol and inspiration is like every other man, lost and desperate. The musician is not really his music, just the way an author, I suppose, isn't necessarily his book. In that one encounter the guitar player learns a lot, perhaps more than he wants to, about Mr. Gardner, his wife Lindy and the world they live in. He is surprised, shocked, touched and awed, but by the end, unsurprisingly, the encounter hardly affects his idea of the singer. The build up to the tragi-comic ending is nice and what could have been a rather wordy narration is delightfully conversational. The story is beautiful in its simplicity.

"..his voice came out just the way I remembered it - gentle, almost husky, but with a huge amount of body, like it was coming through an invisible mike. And like all the best American singers, there was that weariness in his voice, even a hint of hesitation, like he's not a man accustomed to laying open his heart this way. That's how all the greats do it."

Come Rain Or Come Shine: This story was very weird and I don't know, maybe I just didn't understand it well, because if I did, then I don't know why the hell it was part of this collection. A man visits his old friends and realizes that their marriage is falling apart, that he is meant to patch things up between them by making the wife see how miserable he is and how happy they are in comparison. I don't like to watch physical comedy and even less to read it. So the scene where the woman walks in on the friend wrecking her house and chewing paper, while staging a fake dog attack was very awkward. And I get that the story was more than that: it was about the pathetic idea that the only thing this man's friends appreciated in him was his taste in music and how, even though they had bonded over it so well, they didn't think it mattered. That's all I can think of. So I'm assuming I didn't understand this story or why it was humorous: I do welcome explanations.

Malvern Hills: This is another story in the collection that I thought was just fabulous. It's written in a lazy, meandering tone and lets on a lot more about the narrator than the narrator perhaps intends, which reminded me of Never Let Me Go. The book jacket describes this as the story of "a struggling singer-songwriter unwittingly involved in the failing marriage of a couple he's only just met." It's about being a struggling artist and having to deal with people who don't value art or understand why you want to be a artist, it's about that odd connection and sense of belonging between complete strangers, who only having in common that shared passion, about music transporting you to a different place, about being cruelly snatched back to reality every time. Ishiguro has this knack of focusing on the little moments and making them big, vivid.

"A power cyclist, kitted out in what looked like a black wetsuit, went speeding by us, and for the next few moments, we all watched his frantic receding shape."

Nocturne: The title story is odd, nice, though not my favourite. The characters are pitiable and funny; the story features Lindy Gardner from Crooner, in a hotel room with her face wrapped in bandages following a plastic surgery. Starring alongside her, in the room next-door, is our narrator, a talented but underrated jazz musician, who has convinced himself that plastic surgery will bring him the fame he deserves. It's a sad story about shallow artificiality, about groping blindly in the dark, about jealousy and all those little emotions that blur out the rest of the world and make us do the craziest of things. It drags on a bit, though, and gets confusingly, abruptly surreal in the middle. What I liked was seeing Lindy Gardner through another perspective.

"Maybe it was because I'd become so bored by this point; or just that my mood was on the up again; or that the thought of having a fellow prisoner to swap stories with was extremely appealing. Or maybe I wasn't so immune myself to the glamor thing. In any case, despite everything I felt about Lindy Gardner, when I read this, I felt a tinge of excitement, and I found myself telling Gracie to let Lindy know I'd be over at five."

Cellists: This was perhaps the most wittily crafted story of the five and being the last, it did have the most lasting impression. Had the book ended with the second story, I wouldn't have liked it. This was a good ending and it was almost as if it completed the point the writer was trying to make throughout the book, and quite perfectly, I must add. According to the book jacket, this story is about 'a young cellist whose tutor promises to "unwrap" his talent.' That tells very little about the actual story, which is about the innate aptitude for music, the need for recognition, the ego and its inability to deal with failure, about the metaphorical muse and about being scared even, and well, I think from the whole collection, this is one story that is truly unique and that could stir something in you. It should be read not summarized, so I'll leave you with this last quote:

"He resolved, out of politeness, to endure this uninvited tutorial for at most another five minutes. But he found himself staying a little longer, then longer again. He played some more, she talked again. Her words would always strike him initially as pretentious and far too abstract, but when he tried to accommodate their thrust into his playing, he was surprised by the effect.  Before he realized, another  hour had gone by."

Overall, this isn't a book I would normally read. It's about music, art and life; none of which I quite understand. It's something to enjoy and be sad about on a quiet afternoon and wonder about late into the night. I'm not completely done wondering just yet. Meanwhile, I need to get The Remains of the Day from the library, I have heard far too much about the book in the past couple of days and while some stories from this collection did puzzle me, I'm starting to develop a kind of vague fondness for Ishiguro's writing.

 This wasn't read specifically for the Japanese Literature Challenge, but it fits, so why not.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry

I couldn't remember which was recommended to me, and picked Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters at the library, instead of A Fine Balance. I wonder if, had I chosen the latter, I would have been awed as promised. I started reading Family Matters late in the evening and finished it in the middle of the night. Interesting and at times painfully beautiful, though the book was, it did leave something to be desired.

Set in Bombay (Mumbai to some of us) Family Matters is the story of a middle-class Parsi family. The story opens in a little household. We meet Nariman Vakeel, once a professor of English and now, a Parkinson's patient living at Chateau Felicity with his step-children, Coomy and Jal. The opening scene: Nariman announcing his intention to go out for a walk, Coomy complaining about having to take care of her sick step-father, Jal with his hearing-aid struggling to keep up with the conversation. The very start brings out the deep, inner turmoil brought on by Nariman's sad, scandalous past, which haunts each of them throughout the book. When Nariman's breaks his ankle on one of his walks, Coomy must do everything from giving him the bedpan to changing his sheets. Resentful of what he's done to them and their mother, Coomy plots to send Nariman to live with his real daughter, Roxana, who lives with her husband, Yezad and two kids, Jehangir and Murad in a tiny apartment in Pleasant Villa. As the Goodreads blurbs says, "Their decision will test not only their material resources but, in surprising ways, all their tolerance, compassion, integrity, and faith." Taking care alone of her sick Pappa, struggling to maintain her husband's happy routine, managing the household with the money problems and raising the two monkeys, who love and take care of Grandpa forms Roxana's tale of love, devotion, responsibility and everything in between.

In the first few pages, the book seemed to promise a delicate drama, but it was all too much way too soon. By the time I'd read a hundred pages, the endless graphic descriptions of bed sores, urinals and bowel movements made me queasy to the point where I had to, not reluctantly, stop reading during dinner. They were, quite frankly, rather unnecessary. It was realistic, I get it, we've had sick to attend to too, but I could have done without the nausea, thank you. The book was melodramatic, as was to be expected, affairs of the family are rarely anything else, but what disappointed me was how little was left for us to realize. Every feeling was described in detail and ruined. There were little moments in the book, where the writer managed to restrain himself, perhaps, and he sort of let the subtle love wash over us. Jehangir feeding Grandpa soup with a responsible air about him was one of those touching scenes, Roxana observing and alluding to it then and later, explaining how the little action should make a us feel, was unnecessary. There was little magic in the book.

The book had a nostalgic air to it and the descriptions of Bombay fascinated me. (It so contrasts the Bollywoodian Mumbai of Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games.) Of course, I appreciated how it was more a love for a home one has had or a haven one has built that seeped through the pages, than the love for just a particular city. There were different aspects of the Mumbai world in the book, from being attached to the old name Bombay, playing Matka, the local trains, the hot, greasy weather, children dreaming of Enid Blyton's   scones and porridges, and the politics bubbling in the city. The way it affected and inspired every person differently was just lovely. Yezad's frequent outbursts of rage against the "goondas" and their racism (which he claimed to be above) blotted the pages and were, or so it seemed to me, rather biased, or maybe they just didn't appeal to my bias. The only Marathi people in the book spoke in this ridiculous continuous tense (of the "we are thinking that you should do this" kind), while everyone else was very literary in their dialogue, but let's not get into that.

The prose is a bit overdone, so verbose. But sitting here with the book in my lap, it's funny, how opening to any page at random brings up a bit of wisdom, fabulously quotable.

"I think emigration is an enormous mistake. The biggest anyone can make in their life. The loss of home leaves a hole that never fills."

"Little white lies are as pernicious as big black lies. When they mix together, a great greyness of ambiguity descends, society is cast adrift in an amoral sea, and corruption and rot and decay start to flourish. (...)Everything is disintegrating because details are neglected and nothing is regarded seriously."

"If Bombay were a creature of flesh and blood, with my blood type, Rh negative - and very often I think she is - then I would give her a transfusion down to my last drop, to save her life."

"Yezad approached the sanctum again. The fire was burning vigorously, the flames leaping with joy, and the room was a dance of light and shadow. He stood absorbed for a few moments, then felt is was churlish - churlish to refuse to bow before a sight so noble in its simple beauty. If he did not bend now, for this, what would he bend for?"

The ending employed what most literature freaks love to hate, and an abrupt, convenient change in the unsolvable situation led to a clean resolution of all problems. Till then, the characters were all blacks and whites (very few grays). With the epilogue, five years later, Yezad had changed, the children were older and a few grays emerged; the ending succeeded in making the one-dimensional characters more real. At the same time, with Yezad disapproving of Murad's Marathi girlfriend, the book showed how things, even over a span of so many years, rarely change at all.

I really don't know how to conclude, except to say that, for me, the book had a combination of goods and bads. I certainly didn't love it. I can think of many people, though, who might really like the book for the very reasons I didn't: the fairly poetic prose, the often ostentatious drama and the sentimentality.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The First Bird: Episode 1 by Greig Beck

One word: Awesome. For a sort of modern version of The Lost World, this book is pretty creative. 

Somewhere in the deep jungles of Brazil, a social anthropologist discovers something extraordinary. The fame-hungry scientist brings back to LA a live specimen of an Archaeopteryx (the eponymous first bird) and with it, a deadly infection that flays its victims alive. So, while the disease spreads, a team of experts sets out to Gran Chaco to find a cure; a team which includes Professor Matt Kearns, an expert in archaeology, old languages and more out of necessity than choice, adventure. While the plot is kind of formulaic, the world created is entirely original.

As with Black Mountain, the thing that really makes this book work is the pace. The plot speeds on and before you even realize it, you're completely hooked. And for someone who manages to keep things moving so quickly, the authors gives a lot of attention to details. Very few authors can describe an intense action packed scene in such a way that you can picture every single move, as if in slow motion. The vivid descriptions make the scenes come to life, making all the bad things ten times more horrific. There are few information dumps, but since this is a thin book (and only the first part in a series), I had to wish there were. Episode 1 is almost just a teaser and ends with that pesky cliffhanger. I can't wait to read the second part.

The team is made up of quite a variety of characters, with rather obvious good and bads, so you're bound to find someone to relate to. There's swift, funny dialogue and very cool inputs from the entomologist and the linguist. The native legends, and customs, described mostly by Moema, the local guide of sorts make the whole book very interesting and very real. It also gives you the vaguest idea of what's about to come and how deep the author's capable of digging into a topic. Which is the thing I loved the most: while it's just a novella, it's massive in scope.

There is still time to read Episode 1 of The First Bird before Episode 2 comes out in July, followed by the final episode in August. If you like action, adventure, history, fantasy and thrillers, this is an author you don't want to miss.

I received this book in exchange for an honest review from the publisher.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Jacob Hills by Ismita Tandon Dhankher

I'm glad this wasn't a review copy, because now I can just rant, without having to bother about a review structure or ratings. Those who do care about the review structure and ratings would be happy to know that I though it was a pretty good book! It's fast paced, but you should know, there's little action (not the fighting and killing kind, anyway) and there are not many clues or detectives, either. 

Here's the blurb, which gives a pretty good idea about the book, without giving away any details (as must have been intended and saves me the trouble of writing a summary)

"It’s just another evening at the Tiller’s Club. 
Near the bar, Capt. Rana, the Young Officer undergoing training at the War College stands among his course mates, consciously avoiding his pregnant, Muslim wife, Heena. Rumour has it she had forced him to marry her because of the baby. 
Saryu, village belle turned modern babe, drink in hand, chats up a YO. Her husband, Maj. Vikram Singh, shoots angry glances at her. She isn’t bothered; the question is, who will she go home with tonight? 
Pam and Gary, the flamboyant Sikh couple, chat merrily with the senior officers, charming as ever. Who’d ever guess that they lead the infamous Key Club, an underground swinger couples’ club. 
And in one corner stands the Anglo-Indian wife of Maj. George Chandy, Eva, who finds herself at the heart of a murder mystery when a woman’s bleeding body is discovered at the old church under the black cross. The murdered woman’s body is covered with cigarette burns. A six-year-old girl’s wrist is similarly marked. Another little girl shows signs of severe abuse.
Jacob Hills: an army station that houses the War College where young officers receive training. A world of army officers and genteel conversation, of smart men and graceful women. Set in the 1980s – in an India that was at the cusp of tradition and Westernized modernity – this is the story of the ugliness that lies beneath the garb of Jacob Hills’s beauty and sophistication. An ugliness the Chandys find themselves confronted with. Will they uncover the truth behind the woman’s murder? Will their love survive Jacob Hills?"

I really wanted to read Jacob Hills, because Ismita's debut book (Love on the Rocks) was special to me. It was the first review copy I ever received. The blog and I have come a long way since and after devouring her book in just a day, I can say with confidence, so has the author. When it comes to the writing style and the narration (alternating first person views of many characters), the books are quite similar. Not to mention, the characteristic cute little title sketches for every chapter and the bits of fine poetry have comfortably snaked their way into the story, like in the first book. Both the books are murder mysteries, and at the same time, a series of character sketches that tell a lot more than the story. And despite all the glaring, uncanny similarities, Jacob Hills ends up being a much better book than Love on the Rocks. That's a good thing, because that was a debut and this shouldn't and doesn't seem like one. Jacob Hills is more refined, more structured and you get a feeling that it's not written to please someone. Love on the Rocks had a bit of that clumsy, trying-to-impress vibe to it that shouted "Debut!" and being the debut reviewer that I was, my review definitely screamed that too (it probably had phrases like "character development" and "plot arc" shoved in there.) Jacob Hills was mature and showed experience.

The difference in the plot arcs (for lack of a better term) is that while Love on the Rocks ended up with a rushed, unexpected bang, Jacob Hills has a sort of slow waltzing finish. That makes it a lot less about solving the mystery and lot more about what's bubbling underneath it all. Ray Bradbury said that a good story is a metaphor, or something to that effect, and this one is. You have the chance to take things at face value and then dig deeper with some of the characters (the more sensible ones like George or the oddly naive ones like Eva) and then you can dig even deeper all on your own. When in Jacob Hills, the author makes a point, racy and bold though the book is, the point made is subtle and unbiased (although I am not even sure if that's intentional.) You are not told what to think, you are only told that, maybe, it's time to think for a bit. The mystery, who killed the woman, who abused the child, those are pieces of a puzzle that gradually fall into place. The helpless "that's it?", the shocked "really?" and the hopeful "what now?" that follow are left for us to chew on. 

Here comes the reviewer in me: The prose is spirited and fun and keeps you entertained. All the different perspectives give you an insight into the world that a lone narrator could not have managed. It is a delicate topic, especially with all that's been in the news lately and it has been handled carefully and I guess, correctly. Along with giving a serious message, the book is also humorous, which keeps it from becoming a complete drab. The book could have used some finishing touches, a little smoothing out of the plot at places, but those are things I found only when I really went looking for faults. My only huge problem with the book is, I suppose, that it's short. I would have loved it if the author had dug deeper into the world. The book had the potential to be a big fat novel and I was disappointed with what was just a little glimpse of what could have been. Since Jacob Hills is already over, I wish the author decides to write one of those longer, deeper stories soon. I'd certainly read it.

I didn't initially like the book cover, by the way. Now I kind of do. The contrasting colours represent a sad and desolate background with something ludicrous and dramatic emblazoned on it, trying and failing to hide what's underneath. It's tragic, pretty much like the book, and also very up-front, almost provocative, like a chall.. wow, I'm reading too much into it, aren't I? I should get some sleep, I have been buried in this book all day.
Meanwhile, why don't you go buy it?

Monday, June 10, 2013

There May Be An Asterisk Involved by Vedashree Khambete

Note: I'm sorry if this 'book review' is little more than a gushing rant, that happens sometimes with books that surprise me.

Very few people appreciate a well-written footnote. Most of my favourite parts of the Discworld books lie right in those wittily worded footnotes. They're also where the narrator's voice really comes out, and in any book by Terry Pratchett, that is most welcome. (Also a book with funny, comfortable, page-long footnotes: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.) Vedashree Khambete has managed to sneak into her book some truly wry, mocking commentary through the regular footnote asides. They top the list of reasons I adored There May Be An Asterisk Involved.

At the risk of sounding like a judger-and-labeller, I don't generally read books by Indian authors, especially debuts. So I was mildly surprised when I read the blurb on the back of this book that my sister (who stays somewhere in the US - I'm bad with names) sent me to have it sent to her, because the book's not available on Amazon. It sounded too interesting. I was also mildly surprised and curious by the lengths she went to acquire this tiny book. So I did a little sleuthing (I asked my sister) and found out that the book was written by a blogger (and, clearly, a book nerd, which gives her brownie points) whom she regularly read. The blog was entertaining and I couldn't wait to get started on the book. For you, the blurb:

"Ira Bhat, copywriter by day, sleep-deprived copywriter by night, has only one goal: to not go utterly bonkers as she negotiates the perils and pitfalls of a career in advertising. These include, but are not limited to: comma-obsessed clients, award-obsessed bosses, obnoxious marketing executives, high-strung creative types, impossible deadlines, obscure briefs, fiercely competitive colleagues, the death of many a big idea...and the ever-present danger of falling in love with the new account planner. Sounds doable, but is it? Because, when it comes to advertising, somewhere, hidden in the fine print, there may be an asterisk involved..."

I don't believe I've read any book with good punctuation humour before. Now that I think about it, I haven't read a single book by an Indian author (not that I have read many at all) that was humorous to the core. I'm often wary of reading things people find extremely funny; they don't usually seem that way to me. I'm also not very fond of long-winded satire and don't like scathing sarcasm. This book was somewhere between the two (three?) and it was fun. The writing was breezy, lighthearted, the plot seemed aimless and precise at the same time and it was just corny enough to be good. That doesn't mean, of course, that there was nothing that bugged me.

The story was predictable. There was some almost pompous name-dropping that I would generally frown upon. The lead character had this Inkheart-ey air about reading: the assumption that no one else does it. Things like "Please, you're so dumb, I read Hemingway, Calvino, Rand" were slightly annoying. That I like (or once liked) every one of these authors made it okay. The characters were stereotypes, both the nice and the obnoxious ones. Not to mention, every character including the omniscient narrator (yes, that's the Lit student in me talking; no, I haven't glanced at the books in a while, so I may be wrong) sounded the same: however, they did all sound comfortably witty, you know, not too slapstick, they didn't drop Hindi words or cool urban slang in their talk and they were nothing like the LOLCats, which is to say, they didn't make deliberate disturbingly non-funny grammatical errors. So, yeah, the fact they were all alike was better than even one of them not being that way just to be 'realistic'.

This isn't going to be the best book you've ever read, nor make you think a lot. But the book is a fairly good package. If not anything else, it will give you a delightfull time. It has romance, glamour, some inevitable drama, just enough advertising know-how, a lot of creativity and a narrator who can make just about anything sound interesting. It's also short and reasonably priced. So, I don't see why you shouldn't just go grab yourself a copy
And before I forget, this is the author's blog.

Update: Turns out a Kindle edition is available here

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis

I first started reading this book almost a year ago. I'm glad I didn't continue reading it back then, I'm sure I wouldn't have appreciated it as much then as I did now.

Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche and if you haven't the slightest clue what it is, it's a good idea to read up on it (that's what I did) before reading the book. The book is also the last novel C. S. Lewis ever wrote and the only thing I've read by him. The book has two parts. The first is the story, as narrated by Orual, Psyche's half-sister, a woman with a disfigured, unpleasant face, which she hides under a veil. Orual bitterly accuses the Gods of being unjust and writes her side of the story as a complaint against the Gods, even a challenge of sorts. 

Orual is the eldest daughter of the King of Glome, a city not far from Greece. The goddess of Ungit (whom the Greeks call Aphrodite) is jealous of the little Psyche's beauty and is infuriated by the godly status, which the people assign her. The King is convinced of the existence of a curse and is commanded to sacrifice Psyche to save his kingdom. She is sacrificed to the "God of the Mountain", Ungit's son (Cupid is only alluded to in this story), who is supposed to devour Psyche, but instead, falls in love with her. He meets her in secret, however and Psyche is not allowed to look at her 'husband'. In the original story, when Psyche's sisters visit her new palace, they get jealous and plan to destroy Psyche's happiness. They coax her into finding the identity of the God (or what they believe is a monster.) Cupid flees when Psyche sees him and she is put through a series of horrible tests to win back her love. In the retelling, Lewis shows us how it is impossible for the sisters to have seen the palace, when they simply didn't believe. Telling the story from Orual's point of view gives it a new... face, for lack of a better word. It poses all the questions that would come up in a mortal's head after reading a story like this one. The second part of the book does a wonderfully unexpected job of answering those questions, with what could be called a re-retelling. Anything more I say about the second part, would just spoil it. And no, all this did not spoil the book (hence no 'spoiler alert'.)

It's a finely written book, which has a lot to say. I'm not sure I understand all of it, or if I ever will. But I do like how it made me really think; think for two days before I went ahead and wrote this post. The first part was interesting, in the way all mythology is, very crude and insanely fascinating; disturbing and beautiful at the same time. But it was in the second part (not Part II but the second half of the book) that it became smart, you know: that's when you realize the whole point of having a retelling. It's not a Peter Ackroyd retelling, the whole idea of which is pretty much to make things more 'accessible' or easier to read. The revised story here makes a point, the new perspective has a purpose and it's a good one. The book adds the human aspect to a myth, expands on feelings, thoughts and dialogues and makes the myth all the more real. You can hardly relate to mythology, I mean, come on. But here you really can put yourself in Orual's shoes and that's one of the things I liked (or understood... I think?) about the book.

Here are a few lines I liked from the book: (*some contain details, which may spoil the reading experience for some of you and those of you've now been duly alerted.*)

"I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

"Now mark yet again the cruelty of the gods. There is no escape from them into sleep or madness, for they can pursue you into them with dreams. Indeed you are then most at their mercy. The nearest thing we have to a defence against them (but there is no real defence) is to be very wide awake and sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky, and (above all) to love no one."

"I was not a fool. I did not know then, however, as I do now, the strongest reason for distrust. The gods never send us this invitation to delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony. We are their bubbles; they blow us big before they prick us."

"A fat fly was crawling up the doorpost. I remember thinking that its sluggish crawling, seemingly without aim, was like my life, or even the life of the whole world."

"It was the hardest work I'd ever done, and, while it lasted, one could think of nothing else. I said not long before that work and weakness are comforters. But sweat is the kindest creature of the three— far better than philosophy, as a cure for ill thoughts."

"“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

Have you read Till We Have Faces?

P. S. This is another read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. My next book for the challenge is on its way: The Ocean at the End of the Lane. That's right: Gaiman's latest novel, I can't wait to start reading it.