Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett

I was so thrilled when I saw this at the library. As if it were not enough that it was a book by Terry Pratchett,  it had an introduction by A. S. Byatt. I got it immediately and spent the next couple of weeks reading the many pleasing stories in it. I have to admit though, the introduction was a bit disappointing.

I am a firm believer in the fact that very few authors can write good short stories, ones with a plot (unlike those of Byatt, which are nice but pretty vague.) The first story delighted me, because Pratchett had written it at the age of thirteen. While it was nothing like what he's written now, it was entertaining finding that voice in him that is so familiar. Most of the stories were based on various prompts, which he has elaborated on at the beginning of each story.

One of my favourites was The Sea and Little Fishes, starring Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. A coalition of witches, led by self-appointed organiser Lettice Earwig, asks Granny Weatherwax not to participate in the annual Lancre Witch Trials, on account of her always winning. She agrees, becoming disconcertingly nice. The sudden change in Granny's usual stern unforgiving attitude hilariously terrified people. What follows goes on to show that you don't have to be nice to be good. The story gets its title from an ancient Discworldian phrase: "The big sea does not care which way the little fishes swim."

Death and What Comes Next was another favourite. It is the story of a conversation between Death and a dying philosopher. It's short and not wanting to give anything away, I'll just link you to it. Turntables of the Night was another story with Death; but a more Good Omens Death than the Discworld Death we all know and love.

Read it, if you are a Terry Pratchett fan! However, don't let this be your introduction to the author. While awesome, this is certainly not Pratchett's best work. I'd recommend starting with a Discworld novel and you have almost forty to choose from.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

Summary (from Goodreads): Isaku is a nine-year-old boy living in a remote, desperately poor fishing village on the coast of Japan. His people catch barely enough fish to live on, and so must distill salt to sell to neighboring villages. But this industry serves another, more sinister purpose: the fires of the salt cauldrons lure passing ships toward the shore and onto rocky shoals. When a ship runs aground, the villagers slaughter the crew and loot the cargo for rice, wine, and rich delicacies. One day a ship founders on the rocks. But Isaku learns that its cargo is far deadlier than could ever be imagined.

Who knew it was possible to be more depressing than Thomas Hardy! Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura is now the bleakest thing I have ever read. I really wanted to like the book and searched in vain for a silver lining. Isaku's life was terrible and terrifying. Though some of the village customs were interesting, I would've been happier left in the dark. The dull repetitiveness of the villagers' lives, which was supposed, perhaps, to be touching, simply bored me. I didn't see a point to the book, however hard I tried, and found nothing I could learn from, mull over. The writing was disconnected, repetitive and reeked of translation. Almost all characters were one-dimensional, stick figures, whom it was impossible to emotionally connect to. The only good thing about this story was that it was short. Even then, my head hurt by the time it ended. 

I've read better books than this for the Japanese Literature Challenge.

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Wow. I don't know just what to say, except maybe that I am eternally thankful for having given so many Indian authors a try in the past year. I did not expect to like this book, but I suppose I shouldn't trust my biased expectations any more. It is a fabulous book. And it certainly won't be the last I read by the author.

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni opens with Uma, a Medieval Lit student and someone I could instantly connect to, sitting in the lobby of the Indian Consulate Building, waiting to get her Visa done. It is dull and slow, the employees in no hurry to get things done on time, a typical Indian office maintaining its charm even in the middle of America. There are a number of people there, a Chinese woman and her granddaughter, an African American man, an old couple, the Indian staff and others. Everything is dull, that is, until an earthquake strikes and the group is trapped in the building, which soon becomes a suffocating cage and there's tension between the people. Then our heroine, the Literature buff with a copy of The Canterbury Tales in her bag has a predictably wonderful idea: telling each other stories to avoid panicking. Every story is the one life-altering experience each of them has ever had. The tales and the characterization are the essence of the book. From a love story set in Calcutta's Chinatown to an ex-soldier seeking redemption, the stories continue to thrill, touch and haunt you. Even as the building slowly starts to flood and crumble, you are sucked into the lives of the people and the panic and urgency is replaced by an odd hope. 

It is the last story and the ending that will decide your view of the book: Being enraptured throughout by the people's stories, I thought the ending was perfect. A stroll through Goodreads made me realize that many were actually disappointed by it! Hence this warning: if you like the focus to be on the plot, if you don't like short stories, if you need concrete explanations and conclusions; you may not like the meandering prose.

The writing does become a bit too wordy at times. But the tales never lose their touch of mundane, regular, familiar. The book is simple and profound in its simplicity. The author manages to find magic in things that are ordinary, worldly. And she really makes you think: about your life, about the people in it and about that one amazing thing that you may have experienced. A beautiful book and definitely worth a read!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ring in the Dead by J.A. Jance

I can't believe I had never heard of this series. When I got this, I browsed through a neverending list of books by New York Times bestselling author J.A. Jance and was fascinated just by the popularity. The book certainly lived up to my expectations. If not anything else, I'd recommend it as an introduction to the Jance's writing style. Being a novella, it's a quick read and the characters keep you involved. There's little suspense and the plot is pretty straightforward but it doesn't spoil the book's charm.

J. P. Beaumont is an old detective now, who stars in his own series, of which this book is the 20.5th installment (that adds twenty books to my TBR list!) When he is visited by the daughter of an old partner, Milton 'Pickles' Gurkey he remembers the case that brought them together. One day, at the end of Beaumont and Pickles's shift, a stop at the Doghouse restaurant quickly turns deadly. Not feeling well, Pickles steps out into the parking lot for a breath of fresh air and stumbles into a crime in progress. Suffering from a heart attack, he is found unconscious, with a dead woman on the ground nearby and the murder weapon in his hand. With Pickles under investigation from Internal Affairs, it's up to the new kid on the block, J. P. Beaumont, and his friends on the force to find out the truth.

For those who are familiar with this series, reading the book will be an altogether different experience from mine. What was a first-view at the characters for me, would be a cozy look into their past. But I can say this: if not familiar, it was certainly as enjoyable for me as would be for them. First-timer or not, this is an interesting book by an author you shouldn't miss. 

It's easy to like Beau, even though we get to know very little about him. Switching perspectives, if only briefly, with Pickles was a great idea! The author has their individual voices down and you begin to identify with the characters better. The writing has a flow to it, even though nothing much happens in the book. The detective work by itself is nothing special or exciting, the ending is very abrupt, and if the writing weren't so inexplicably engaging, I would have give the book a bad review. It shouldn't be called a suspense or crime novel or any of those labels that bring to mind an action-packed story. However, the book does have much deeper characterization and relationship establishment than your average mystery. I honestly don't know what genre this fits into; I suppose it forms a genre of its own. I have a feeling that might be true for all the author's novels and I can't wait to read them! Meanwhile, those interested can buy this book here.

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

Language Freak Summer Challenge

The Language Freak Summer Challenge is hosted here. It ends at the end of August, so I'm joining in somewhat late.

The goal is to read books in any foreign language you know, and review them in that language. A little bit about the languages I do speak: My mother tongue is Marathi, which is an Indian language. I also speak Hindi and of course, most books I read are in English. Neither of these counts as a 'foreign language'. That language, for me, would be German; I've been learning it for four years, give or take. I have reviewed many German books on this blog, some of which I actually read in German too. But I've never really written a review in German, so this seems like a good chance to try that!

Of course,  I can't wait to read what other German reviewers write, either. The German books that I have lined up to read include one by Cornelia Funke and another by Joseph Roth. If you're a foreign language learner, make sure to check out this challenge!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Widows of Braxton County by Jess McConkey

The Widows of Braxton County is written by Jess McConkey (aka Shirley Damsgaard.)

It is about two similar murders, that take place over a hundred years apart. When Kate moves in with her husband, Joe Krause at his farm in Braxton County, Iowa, she's looking forward to a fresh start, a new home and a happy married life. But she finds a world full of gossip, lies, and a century-long family feud that started with the mysterious murder of Jacob Krause. As she deals with judgmental, meddling neighbours, a disapproving mother-in-law and a bad-tempered husband, Kate uncovers a long-kept secret. Making unlikely friendships along the way, Kate struggles against the curse of misfortune on the Krause family.

The ending is great. The suspense is of the right kind: the answer is in front of you all along, you just don't see it! I read the book in two busy days; putting it down only when I absolutely had to and when I did, looking forward to reading it the whole time. With the feuding families, their legends of ghosts, the creepy cats, the antique music box, the old cabin that noone enters and all the hush about the past; the author has created an amazing aura of mystery that hooks you right in. She makes you curious, like Kate, every step of the way. With the cover, and the detailed description, it's easy to visualize the place and put yourself in it. 

Though the book would be shelved as a family drama, it's not mushy, depressing or too loud. The book has a lot to say about women and relationships. However, I do have conflicting views about the characters. I liked Rose, who wouldn't like Rose? She's exactly the kind of strong and exuberant character who adds flavour to a typical family drama. The old woman is Kate's mother-in-law's sworn enemy and is among the few friends Kate finds. I also liked Joe Krause, who seems lost, torn between protecting his family and his mother and loving his wife. He is a fuller character than Kate ever is. She's unrealistically naive and though she becomes stronger as the story progresses, the naivety sticks. The one thing that kept bothering me was that some key players in the story have the same names. The many generations tend to get confusing; Joe's ancestor is called Joseph as well, and his little step-brother, Willie has a descendant called Will. I would have loved it if the author had added an extensive family tree at the back, just to make all she's described even clearer.

Being the kind of person that feels an inexplicable attachment to the past, I loved the book. If you like to browse through old prints, study family histories, wonder if the past ever really goes, or simply want to cuddle up with a nice mystery, I recommend this book.

Buy it here!

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

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

I am not so unfamiliar with William Blake as to not know what the title of this book refers to. I picked it up at the book sale because I like the poem The Tyger. I haven't read many of Blake's works, though, which are quoted a lot in this book, nor do I know his history, so I paired this book with a heavy dose of Wikipedia to get the full effect. I do believe Chevalier has done her research well. I love the way she has blended all her carefully collected data subtly into the story, avoiding information dumps.

This is the story of Jem Kellaway, who has moved to London from Dorsetshire (still has the accent) with his family and the street-wise Londoner Maggie Butterfield. The children form a bond, while getting to know their curious neighbour Mr. Blake (that's right, the then-quite-under-appreciated poet we've all heard of today.) Another major historic figure starring in this book is Philip Astley, the charming circus owner who offers Jem's father a job as one of his carpenters. Set in Georgian London, in the final decade of the 18th Century, the book is, among other things, about growing up in an urban world, against the backdrop of a raging revolution. And this is what seems to inspire William Blake's greatest work: which features prominently in this book, The Songs of Innocence and Experience. The book is tragic and touching and scary, deals with rape, murder and loss; like the poems, it's about opposites, being neither here nor there, about what lies between Heaven and Hell and what it means to be human.

Tracy Chevalier is a good story-teller. She can you keep you thoroughly engaged with her spirited and quirky writing style, entangle you in minute details and realistic dialogue. Jem and Maggie are kids who have been through a lot more than kids should, who think of themselves as adults until they actually begin to grow up. Their relationship is perfect and they're quite lovable. And then there's Maisie, the sister who doesn't act her age, who swoons over the handsome John Astley and naively loses her way. I really liked all the fictional characters, even Charlie and Dick Butterfield. Just when I thought they were getting too predictable, they'd do something that would surprise me and become all the more real. That being said, Mrs and Mr Blake, and the circus owners are too much like cardboard cutouts out of a history textbook. They are too one-dimensional and I almost wish the writer had fleshed them out more, even if that meant straying from fact.

The book was good, not life-altering-ly amazing. It had the potential to be something fantastic; in fact, it got very close to it, but I was disappointed when it didn't quite end up there. The book dealt with a lot, but all the issues almost cluttered the book. Not every problem got the emotional attention it needed and to me, even at the end, the book seemed incomplete and almost shallow. I like Tracy's writing style, and I would like to give her better known The Girl With the Pearl Earring a try. Burning Bright, though, I'd only recommend as a breezy, have-time-to-kill, need-a-distraction read.

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The First Bird: Episode 2 by Greig Beck

So, here's my review of Episode 1. Do check it out. The series just keeps getting better and you'd want to have read the first two, when the third episode comes out in August.

The First Bird is like a modern version of The Lost World, while still being entirely original and unique. Here's what happens in Episode 1: 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 adventure.

"The red-twilight jungle had lulled them with its paradisal beauty. They knew there had to be predators. Stupid, Matt thought. They should have known better. There were things down here that were waking nightmares – scientifically fascinating, but terrifying and deadly."

In Episode 2, the adventure continues, in the heart of the jungle. The team has found its way into an ancient ecosystem, which has managed not only to survive over countless years, but to evolve into something sinister and entirely unfamiliar to us. Not only do they find what they're looking for, they also come across some things they never expected to exist. People die and with all the vivid gory details, it's certainly not pretty. The journey gets more harrowing and scary, especially after the group splits up. The first episode did the work of introducing the characters and displaying the tension between them. Most problems, though, are resolved in this book, more out of necessity than anything else and the focus is on the absurdities of the jungle. Their first encounter with a primeval predator is amazing, no one can describe action scenes quite so well. The images are lifelike and the blend of fact and fiction is very fascinating.

Episode 2 ends with another annoying cliffhanger, only this time I am more anxious to read the third episode than anything else. The story, the part of the journey, that started in this book does get resolved by the end. I can't wait to read about the aftermath of the expedition now and about what was happening in the outer world all this time. I can only imagine what a perfect ending it would be, to such a great story.

You can get Episode 1 here on Amazon, and 2 right here.

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

Monday, July 15, 2013

Death in Midsummer by Yukio Mishima

Death in Midsummer and Other stories is a short story collection by Japanese author Yukio Mishima. The first story gives the book its title. I've only read the first story and I loved it. I'll write about the other stories, updating this post as and when I read them.

Death in Midsummer is translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. On a family vacation at a beach resort, while Tomoko Ikuta is taking a nap in her room, her three children and their aunt Yasue are on the beach. A freak accident leads to the death of Yasue and two children. The story is about what's left of the little family dealing with their sudden loss.

The story is frank and simple. It is more like a chapter out of someone's life; without a real plot but in a way, complete. In contrast to the helpless feeling that Ishiguro's stories brought, Death in Midsummer is precise. The way the characters deal with death and family is very real. The relationships between the characters, the husband and wife are at once delicate and strong. They aren't always able to understand each other or are puzzled by how they both react to a same situation in two completely different ways. Their reactions are described with a calm lack of drama, that very few books about loss manage, and I could relate to it perfectly. The writing is shockingly vivid. I hope to read more stories from the collection soon. In the meanwhile, if you like Japanese Literature, check out this challenge.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Under the Dome by Stephen King

I never actually believed I'd finish reading Under the Dome in the time decided for the read-a-long, but it seemed like a good idea to try. I've discovered, though, that I don't really like read-a-longs. Recording my opinions about the book every few hundred pages in a little blue diary, I realized that they fluctuated a lot. They went something like: 
1. this book is so exciting, what a great start. 
2. okay, things are going way slow, too much dialogue, don't you think?
3. BAM, that was awesome and so unexpected. 
4. this may not be as cool as The Stand or IT. 
5. No, no, it's better...! 
The last one, had I kept on keeping notes, would have said: Now, that was a great book.

Goodreads has this summary:

On an entirely normal, beautiful fall day in Chester's Mill, Maine, the town is inexplicably and suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Planes crash into it and fall from the sky in flaming wreckage, a gardener's hand is severed as "the dome" comes down on it, people running errands in the neighboring town are divided from their families, and cars explode on impact. No one can fathom what this barrier is, where it came from, and when -- or if -- it will go away.

Dale Barbara, Iraq vet and now a short-order cook, finds himself teamed with a few intrepid citizens -- town newspaper owner Julia Shumway, a physician's assistant at the hospital, a select-woman, and three brave kids. Against them stands Big Jim Rennie, a politician who will stop at nothing -- even murder -- to hold the reins of power, and his son, who is keeping a horrible secret in a dark pantry. But their main adversary is the Dome itself. Because time isn't just short. It's running out.

I just realized that anything I say about this book is going to sound like every other Stephen King book review on the blog. I could paste paragraphs directly out of my review of 11.22.63 and Cujo and be done with this. Really, all the things I loved about Under the Dome were basically the same: the characters, King's uncanny ability to show just how people would react in any situation, the mystery and the build up to the craziest climax, the emotions involved and how the final scenes touched me and scared me at the same time. The truly bad guys were extremely horrible and the book was violent, with mass hysteria, rape, drugs, murder and the whole propane smuggling thing. The good guys were, as it turns out, capable of things that weren't quite good, either. The Dome brought out the worst in everybody. The secrets and lies did tend to be predictable, but I found the familiarity of the situation troubling, which I suppose is how it was intended to make me feel. It was disturbing how I could relate to the characters at their worst. The idea of the Dome and what follows in the little town is ridiculous and amazing at the same time: which, again, are two words that would fit any Stephen King story.

The thing is, though, this is a book for people who are already fans. If you aren't, you'll be bored, you'll want to give up on Page 300, because the plot just isn't moving fast enough. If you haven't read The Stand or IT, you wouldn't realize how the size of the book becomes worth it, in the end. If you're looking for hardcore science fiction, this is not it. This isn't the genre the writer's famous for, so if it's your first shot, try reading Salem's Lot or The Shining (which was my first Stephen King novel!) Misery, I suppose, would also keep a first-timer completely engaged throughout, which I can't guarantee in case of Under the Dome. But if you are a fan and have time on your hands, this is certainly a pretty great read.

I'm glad I finished the book while the new CBS miniseries based on it is still, in fact, new. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

You know how you read this enormous book and when you're finally done, you still don't want to put it down? I went back and re-read my favourite parts, savouring them just as much, all over again. Very few books have that effect on me.

Set in the criminal underworld of Mumbai, the book is the story of the intertwining lives of Marathi gangster, later dubbed the 'Hindu don', Ganesh Gaitonde and Sikh inspector Sartaj Singh. The book opens with Sartaj Singh, who has only ever heard of Gaitonde and the G-Company getting an anonymous tip-off of Gaitonde's current location. On reaching there, Singh finds Gaitonde in an inaccessible bunker. After a quick chat, as Sartaj tries to get inside, Ganesh Gaitonde kills himself. Inside the bunker, the police find, along with the dead man, a woman, also shot. The investigation that follows is led by Sartaj Singh, who has to report to a mysteriously large national-international agency. The narrative is divided into the current investigation, led by Singh and the gangster-spy Gaitonde telling his own story. It's not just the story of these two men, that the writer provides, but a full and intricate world, with stories and back-stories for a every character and a unique voice for most. In various inset chapters, the writer develops stories for seemingly minor characters; making me look at them not as characters but as people. Which makes me say: Sacred Games not just a book, it is so much more. There are a few things that I realized could have been better: the fact that there wasn't a glossary present (but, I mean, really, how hard is it to figure out slang!), not to mention, the sheer size of the book (800 pages and counting.) The cheesy "the game always wins" tagline on the back cover didn't help. Things could have been edited out, of course, some of the insets didn't add up to much, but almost like with a Stephen King book, though I had to slog through the dull parts a bit, I barely recall having done so in the end. It just doesn't matter!

Here's what I liked. The book is honest. It gives a real, no-holds-barred picture of India, dirty slums and corruption included. But it does so with the eye of an insider; with Katekar complaining about the population, the police letting a few crimes go to catch a few bigger criminals, the successful bribing of all the cops, the squatters, the beggars expertly targeting the helpless foreigners, the addiction with Bollywood fame and the garbled Hindi-Marathi-English of Mumbai, not to mention, Gaitonde killing people with an unsettling ease. It has a lot of violence, swearing, all made realistic by putting them into a historical contest. It has the offensive religious debates and discrimination characteristic of the country. It has as much social criticism as the ever-so-famous, Booker winning White Tiger, except it rings true. My problem with White Tiger is this: it is impossible to imagine a man who's part of the system look at it from such a strikingly objective view. In Sacred Games, the social critique hits you even harder as the characters are more convincing. The book makes you think of Mumbai as a living being with a disease, instead of providing you with the text-book knowledge of the rift between the rich and the poor and other problems faced by the country.

It is a good picture of India, for whoever's interested. Not only because it shows the evil, the kind that can make you tremendously queasy; but because it shows you the truly good things about India. It captures the spirit of the place; I could imagine myself strolling through the city with all the descriptions of people humming old Kishore Kumar-Dev Anand songs, car-radios blaring, the fashion, the typical Mumbai chai and food, and the descriptions of the sea-side. I have noticed many Indian authors using native words in italics, carefully explained by footnotes, most likely to create an exotic atmosphere. What I loved with Sacred Games is that the author has incorporated the typical English words and phrases you'd regularly hear here: people casually deflecting thank yous with a "Mention not.", declaring a movie too 'filmi', describing someone as wearing a 'checked shirt' and the moderately fancy restaurants having 'rexine sofas'. There's a lot of Hindi swearing, though, but I don't see how the book could have done without that, a bunch of Mumbai gangsters saying 'bastard' won't quite have the same effect.

Ultimately the book is a Bollywood movie, a good one, anyway, which is something I never thought I'd use as a compliment; in that, it's classic and just stereotypical enough to work really well. It makes a point, and gives you an at once funny, thrilling, touching time. If you expect a book with a clean linear plot, with a start, a middle and an end; this book, not being very organized, may disappoint you. Read the book expressly to be entertained, shocked and surprised and I'm sure, you will be.