Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

29
Jun

Drums of War, of History

Empress EMerald

Review of The Empress Emerald; J.G. Harlond; Penmore Press LLC 2016; pp 295

– Paavana Varma

Every once in a while you come across a piece of literature which marks its territory in your heart. From the romantic works of Austen to the fantastical themes that Gaiman provides, the list is endless. Written by J.G. Harlond, The Empress Emerald is yet another brilliant work that is certain to stay with the reader for quite a long time.

The protagonist of the novel, Leo Kazan is a Russian-Indian orphan; a thief and a talented linguist. Just the way a moth gets attracted to flame, Leo is drawn to everything that glitters. Discovering Leo’s talents is the District Political Officer in Bombay, Sir Lionel Pinecoffin who realizes that he is sharp-witted and capable even as a young boy. Leo’s talents in stealing, socialising and languages makes an excellent spy of him and thus he becomes Mr. Pinecoffin’s protégé. The story then follows Leo’s life through forty years over several continents and his adventures as a spy as he gets involved in international espionage and diamond smuggling.

The author is successful in painting an intriguing picture of the political instability in India at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is impressive how Harlond turns on the historical lane and makes the characters interact in the background of rising political turmoil. However, in addition to discussing political drama, she has skillfully interwoven personal events of the characters into the work which helps the readers delve into a new hitherto untouched side of the protagonist. We see this in Leo’s romance with Davina Dymond during his time in London which evokes a new found adoration  for him thus enriching the reading experience. However, moral values and principles are also judged when Leo has to leave a pregnant Davina as he has been assigned to go to Russia where the Bolshevik Revolution has taken place.

Harlond’s characters are near to the realistic as she refuses from rendering a thoroughly positive picture of them. She draws our attention to their good, bad and ugly sides. It is up to the readers to judge Leo as he decides to never depart from the strict requirements that come with his profession. The characters are as clear as they are vague for it never becomes certain what we are to make of them and this applies to the bitter reality of our lives too for it seems impossible to figure out the confusing set of people in our lives and at times, ourselves. The various numbers of subplots and tales can be a bit confusing but gives it ample time to come together as a finely devised novel making it all the more dramatic; the apt ingredient required for any piece of historical fiction.

Though the abrupt perspective shifts may, at times, set the reader off track, the language makes up for it. It is powerful and the author seems to have an eye for detail. Her vivid descriptions of the people and places are sure to take the reader on a magnificent journey through Spain, UK, Russia and India over a span of 40 years. At times, it even feels as though the words have been put into a reel because the wonderful panorama of the places has been portrayed in such an effective cinematic style.

This is a tale of love and separation, of faithlessness and treachery. We learn an essential truth from the novel that time can do a lot to people. It can hurt as much as it can heal. It should be appreciated how the author has captured a number of themes, countries and four decades in all of 295 pages. A thoroughly engaging work and an absolute page turner, the book is self-contained and teaches us a thing or two about the world and its residents.

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 10.0/10 (2 votes cast)
15
Jun

World of Witches

Witches

– Shana Susan Ninan

Review of The Witches by Roald Dahl, Illustrated by Quentin Blake; Puffin Books 2013; pp 208

This fantastical tale of real witches is as much for children as it is for adults. So, how does one identify a real witch if she doesn’t ride around on broomsticks, nor wear black cloaks and hats, and disguise themselves as ordinary ladies? Well, the grandmother in the story tells her grandson, ‘boy’, that witches have claws instead of finger nails (so they wear gloves all the time), bald heads (which means they wear wigs), large nose holes, square feet (so they often take off their shoes to relax their toes), and blue spit. And not just that, real witches hate kids.

Most of the story revolves around the witches’ annual general meeting at a hotel in Bournemouth, Norway. The boy finds himself in a room with more than 200 witches! Their plan to turn kids into mice using the Delayed Action Mouse-Maker in chocolate bars in candy shops across England sends shivers down his spine. Poor Bruno is turned into a mouse. And the boy, too!

The twist with the boy being left as a mouse is quite catchy, as it ends with the promise of more adventure! The boy-mouse and his grandmother return with the thought to rid the world of witches.

A delightful read, I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading this out loud to my now four-year-old son, a few years later. And the illustrations are just perfect!

 

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 8.0/10 (1 vote cast)
06
Jun

Caste calls

Pyre

Review of Pyre; Perumal Murugan; translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan; Penguin Random House; Rs 250; pp 270

– Shana Susan Ninan

Perumal Murugan’s Pyre is a caustic reminder of India’s caste intolerance. Clearly pointing a finger at the harsh treatments meted out to inter-caste couples across India, the title of the book is a clever one. Following his now-controversial book, Madhorubagan, this is a story of hatred, intolerance and human suffering. And beneath it all, tucked away in little corners of the book, is the love between the couple.

I only wish I could read it in the original Tamizh. The Translator’s Note at the beginning tells us how his job wasn’t easy, partly because, although speaking Tamizh, the two protagonists – Kumaresan and Saroja – conversed in dialects. The variations in the two cannot be fully brought out in English. The explanations of the same also renders reading a tad bit marring.

The large use of metaphors and visual imagery in the story is just too good. Chronicling a place and a people that have nothing other than village rules to follow, I’m sure Murugan’s work wasn’t easy. Nondi’s mother, Mariya is a one-dimensional woman here: she seems to open her mouth only to abuse her new daughter-in-law, a city-bred, fair-skinned girl who wilts under her words.

Destruction is in our blood. From the cave to the skyscraper, humans haven’t let go of that trait. And when you couple the intolerance with centuries of adherence to community mores and norms, nothing could be more drastic than marrying a woman outside their caste and rendering the village unclean.

Murugan has taken one emotion – hate – and portrayed it in so many myriads of ways. From the villagers spewing hateful curses, and women gawking and saying the angry words to Nondi’s relatives and the final fire that destroys the outsider, it’s all about hate. And how!

The only glitch in my reading was that Nondi comes out as too soft. In spite of marrying a woman of his choice and trying to stay afloat in his village, when the whole community and his family turn against them, he doesn’t even raise his voice nor opposes with strong nerve.

Murugan has, to his credit, six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. Three of his novels have been translated into English: his controversial, One Part Woman, Seasons of the Palm, shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize in 2005, and Current Show. A professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College in Namakkal, he has received several recognitions from government and other agencies.

 

 

 

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 9.0/10 (1 vote cast)
09
Dec

The Sea and its People

dance-of-the-sea

Review of Dance of the Sea; Soosaiya Anthreas; Gatekeeper Press 2015; pp 462

– Paavana Varma

Franklin D. Roosevelt once remarked, “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.” This quote fits rather perfectly in Soosaiya Anthreas’s fine novel, The Dance of the Sea. Set in a coastal slum village of Kanyakumari, his book paints an intriguing picture of the difficult challenges life puts forth. The Dance of the Sea traces with remarkable subjectivity, the unfortunate lives of the fisherfolk situated in the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. It speaks about how ambition and poverty strives together in the rural lives of Indian fishermen.

The protagonist, Sebastian, struggles to escape his squalid town of slum dwellers and later on emerges as a successful engineer. Sebastian’s success makes him less self-effacing as he goes on to desert his lover, Gloria, who lives an independent and more successful life, with regards to money and fame. He also leaves his poverty-stricken sister to herself, not bothering to lend her a helping hand in deadly crisis. But the problems develop into a more serious one as the 2004 Tsunami strikes and takes the lives of hundreds of fisherfolk, and their properties are swallowed by the sea. More troubles follow as the fisherfolk divides themselves into two rival factions based on the method of fishing, and the community disintegrates.

Reading this book will be an emotional experience as the common man will get to live the lives of a set of people hitherto hidden to the fast-paced urbanised population of the world. The unthinkable lives of the characters, ravaged by pain has been addressed directly and in a poignant manner. It shows the research that the author has done over the years. There is anger, humour and grief. Somehow, I felt that Sebastian’s longing to escape his hometown was his own way of seeking salvation. Sebastian wanted to disappear and his search for respite from the brutality of the world is rather breathtaking.

The author hasn’t hesitated to expose the vulnerability of his characters and this makes the book all the more dramatic. The tenacity of the characters especially that of Gloria is admirable. The deadening weight of the circumstances draws a thoughtful picture, nevertheless. A picture of how people find themselves in each other and how strokes of empathy lessens the naive narcissism of the better off and how there is a light of hope however faint, shining through the wreckage.

The writing style is fine except in some places it lags and tends to get jerky. The author has used rich language to depict the lives of the poor fisherfolk. In spite of the challenges and traumas, there exists a kind of harmonic suppleness. The novel is extremely atmospheric and very emotionally involving. There also prevails the inevitable melancholy the story brings with it. The Dance of the Sea is a very interesting novel. It is the kind of book that you might want to read in sessions, to take time and read it in your own pace. The book doesn’t fail to communicate effectively with the reader and even when the book has ended, the sea looms over your imagination distinguishing itself as an entity.

Soosaiya Anthreas was born in the year 1959 in Azhikkal, Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu to fisherfolk parents. He graduated in Engineering from CIT, and is interested in Philosophy, Literature and Spirituality.

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 7.3/10 (9 votes cast)
24
Nov

Stalker on the loose

stalker

Review of Stalker; Lars Kepler; Harper Collins; pp 603

– Karthika Nair

Stalker is the fifth book from Jonna Linna series written by Swedish pair Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, under the pseudonym “Lars Kepler”. Before reading Stalker, I was not aware of their works and talking about Swedish bestsellers, The Millennium trilogy takes up the top spot. The name and the book blurb drew my curiosity; it is about a person who stalks women with a video camera, capturing their “last” moments. And then goes on to kill them in a brutal manner and leaves them in a particular posture, disfigured. This video is received by the national crime investigation team and they are unable to trace the video source and while they are watching it, the victim is facing the last few minutes of her life. Detectives Margot Silverman and Adam Youssef are on a manhunt and eventually Joona Linna, who had been absconding, joins the investigation.

Since this is the fifth book of a series, I did find some plot points confusing and felt like several characters were introduced at the beginning of the story. The course of the plot is so intriguing that I ended up taking the book everywhere with me, even ended up dreaming about the characters and their circumstances. The character development and the build up of the suspense are all up to the point. The pinnacle is the twist of the story: you won’t see it coming and it challenges the general perception by an average audience about a typical “stalker” and the book cover will look completely different to us. Until the big reveal, you are in a dark room where your mind is working on several possibilities as you are reading it.

There are many instances depicting gruesome violence in gory detail; the murder scenes are disturbing and one may feel like throwing up. A major limitation I felt was Joona Linna’s limited role in this book as he is someone who is hailed as a hero. But, his involvement during the final situations is quite heroic. I also liked the characters detective Margot Silverman and Nelly Brandt. Margot Silverman is the detective assigned to the murdered women’s case and the fact that she is seven months pregnant makes it more interesting. She is determined to find the killer and vows that she will give birth only after the case’s resolution.

The way she stood up for Linna and challenged the circumstances of the case when necessary is vehement and impressive. Silverman in a way broke stereotypes regarding pregnant women’s ability to work. It reminded me of Marge Gunderson from Fargo. Nelly Brandt is a very layered character and we will admire her. Female characters like Nelly are rare. Erik, the hypnotist, is also a very noble character and we will feel sorry for him in the course of the story.

As always, suspense thrillers will leave a massive plot point behind. The same is noticed here in terms of the circumstance surrounding Adam Youssef, Margot’s partner from work. After reading the book, I couldn’t help but think “whatever happened to him”. The connection between Erik and blind piano teacher named Jackie is shown in a nice way. When it springs up amidst the investigation, one might find it irritating and unnecessary, not knowing that it is an integral part. As a reader, I was all agog with anticipation while waiting for the resolution which felt like a deep breath one takes after being in the water for several minutes.

Stalker is a very exciting thriller for all those enjoy that genre. As a fan of thrillers myself, the book reading experience was massively satisfying. I look forward to read the first four books from Kepler’s Jonna Linna series.

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 10.0/10 (5 votes cast)
07
Nov

Fighting defanged snakes

house-of-a-hundred-stories

Review of The House of a Hundred Stories; Mariam Karim-Ahlawat and illustrations by Ajantha Guhathakurta; Life Positive Books 2016; Rs 195; pp 135

– Shana Susan Ninan

With a very pleasing cover and blurb, a tight plot, and hoards of animals and birds, Mariam Karim-Ahlawat’s The House of A Hundred Stories is my four-year-old son’s current favourite book. Well, it was a review copy for me, but it ended up that my son, who loves animal stories, found it more endearing. Which is a good sign, I think, because kids of all ages will just love this book.

I was reminded of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi-Hwang, which was narrated from the PoV of Sprout the hen. But this one by Ahlawat has several storytellers. The mongoose, the owl, the rabbit, and others are all narrators, lending different voices and tones as and when the situation calls for. Told mainly from the perspective of Noël Noyla the mongoose, this children’s fable is quite an allegorical one. Once the mongoose leaves the snake charmer’s hold, he comes across several situations in his journey. From fighting defanged snakes for the sake of pleasing humans to understanding his Self, there’s a lot to learn from. There are different languages for each species of animals, much like the segregated human society we live in, ourselves. Philosophical thoughts on identity, freedom, overprotected lives, community, independence, crimes, responsibility and the like are discussed through the animals’ lives here.

In a colonial bungalow close to the Taj Mahal… that’s where this house is. The people living in it barely get a mention, whereas the animals are well-rounded characters, almost always human-like in behaviour. The animals, their kids, and grand kids, all make for a lovely menagerie, much like what the author herself raised as a child.

Ahlawat has written many children’s books and novels, as well as plays and musicals. Currently based in New Delhi, she has been a university lecturer teaching French language and literature, and a columnist. My favourite character from this book is Idiot Frog. Don’t be fooled by his name, no. One of his lines go, “To act boldly in a situation that actually frightens you shows true courage.” He’s full of quips and tales, amassed experience from a life well-lived, meeting all kinds of beings.

In the end, friendship and love are just what we need.

 

 

 

 

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 9.0/10 (5 votes cast)
01
Sep

Challenges of Saving the World

Sky God

Review of Book of the Sky God (Vol.1 & Vol.2); Laura Markowitz; Story Bridge Books; pp 299

– Paavana Varma

Five teens and the end of the world! One wouldn’t really expect five teens to save the world, but the fate of humanity rests with them. This fantasy book written by Laura Markowitz revolves around the Indian-American Rajthani siblings Laila, Ram and Nina, former Miss Popular, Katie Chase and part time zombie, Henry Lipton. Centred on the Mayan prophecy, the book is targeted at young adults. Part one of the book is where the the story line slowly develops, the admirable writing delving into the ties of long friendships is enough to make this a one sit read. We find that Ram and Henry are best friends, Ram’s little sister Laila who voluntarily went mute six years ago has numinous senses and knows the song of humanity. Henry was trained his whole life, without him knowing, for the day of the judgement by an evil secret cult called the brotherhood of prophecy. They believed, they would ascend to godhood through their living heir, Henry.

The author has written the story in such a way that all the events are interrelated. The occasional shift to a whole new imaginative world of immortals and higher beings make it all the more gripping. Miss Markowitz definitely had her creative juices flowing into the pages while writing this book. One understands it from the other worlds, aliens and the multiverse she has talked about in the book. We have Aditi and Itzam-nah the sky gods who will be coming back to Earth another time to judge humanity. They have the power to erase timelines and all the memories associated with it. The author seems to have great interest in Indian mythology too since, Aditi and Itzam-nah are described as having six arms and a third eye.

Part one of the book talks more about the characters’ lives and gives us a sneak peek into their deep thoughts that make them, who they are. Ideas and sub-stories weren’t clashing with one another and as the title of each chapter suggests, the story is rooted to what the chapter name conveys. Because of this clever idea, even when the plot thickens and twists around a lot, in the bigger picture you have a clear understanding about the story. Going through the difficult period of adolescence, we find in all the five teens a search for self-identity. Part one is also not as dramatic and action packed as part two. This book ends in such a way that it keeps you tip toed to find out what the next book has in store for us.

Part two has road trips and is jam-packed with adventures and fights. Unlike the innocent immaturity we see in the characters in part one, part two sees a newfound maturity in the five teens. Maybe we can link it with the purposes they have found to their lives. We also see a gradual strengthening of family and friendship bonds. Nina and Ram who couldn’t stand each other’s presence are now completely comfortable with each other. Friendships and family bonds are tightened and rediscovered. The transformation of characters and the storyline line from part one to two is not sudden but rather slow and subtle and that makes the story more interesting.

The way the author has woven the concept of Karma into the story is quite intriguing. The language is free-flowing and at times you might even find it poetic. The values and meaning of friendship manifest in the novel through the bond the five share. There is more to the book than just the surface story. If you dig deeper you will find a lot of messages that are crucial to our adult lives.  The book is a great read not just for young adults but anyone who enjoys science fiction, fantasy and mythology. The Book of the Sky God is the kind of book you’d want to read in a good summer vacation. But once you take up the book to read, don’t ever think you can stop it midway. It is what you may call ‘unputdownable’.

The only glitch is that after all the hustle and bustle it all ends quite abruptly. The end really doesn’t seem like the end! Maybe it isn’t after all.

 

 

 

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 9.8/10 (4 votes cast)
24
Jul

Adventure beyond the Mountains

frontcover.jpeg

Review of Tale of the Wulks; V.K. Green; Fremont Books 2013; pp 658

– Shana Susan Ninan

Wulks live in the mountains of California, away from the eyes of humans. Watching closely, they are the guardians of Mother Earth, fighting off people who are out to hurt her. Rilk, a young differently-abled boy, is the central character. His grandfather Manfield embarks on an adventurous journey with the Dragon Prince Englar. Long ago, the Wulks were thrown out of their ancestral lands along with the Native Americans. Instead of going onto reservations as the American Indians did, however, the Wulks concealed themselves at the base of Mission Peak in California, after which a Dragon appeared before them and helped them establish a country the human invaders could not destroy. It’s this ingenious intertwining of actual human history that makes Wulk Land more vivid. That said, a map to accompany the precise descriptions of Wulk geography would be welcome.

Talking about his writing process, the author V.K. Green says, “Unlike many writers who usually write whatever is on their mind and arrange the parts later, I brainstorm the entire story before beginning to write.” Indeed, that shows in the plot – it flows seamlessly, from one location to another, from one scene of action to the next.

Autism and adventure are two core themes that run through the story. Carefully crafted into the plot, Green, who himself is autistic, has played the cards well. The protagonist, Rilk is extremely intelligent in his own ways. But the way the world sees the autistic, or anyone differently-abled for that matter, is quite sidelining. The fact that Green has given prominence to Rilk and looked at his abilities than disabilities is a promising breath of air. People who care for or live with autistic persons will very well understand that.

The case of Chris is interesting. Myself a student of Kalaripayattu, an ancient martial arts form of South Asia, I was drawn to this extraordinary character. Chris is a prodigy, an intelligent mind with a sharp and fit body. The wise teenager, Chris helps the other boys in their search. And the author, too, confirms: “I consider the martial arts battles throughout my book to be dear to me.”

I did find some paragraphs needing the editor’s cuts. Some of the sequences are long-winded and, sometimes, leads us off the page. With a few nicks and polishes here and there, this is a brilliant work of fantasy fiction for young and the old.

V. K. Green is an autistic student who has performed at a high academic level with advanced diction, language, and social skills. Using fantasy-adventure, Green is determined to demonstrate to the world the truth behind autism, what it is, and how much autistic individuals add to the positive whole of society. Green currently lives in Fremont, California, with his family.

I love it that there are many beings in the story: humans, dwarves, elves, forest spirits, sages and dragons. And that the story ends peacefully.

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 8.3/10 (8 votes cast)
01
May

Kama – Dance of Desire

Review of The Banana and the Peepul Leaf; Asuri Vasudevan; CinnamonTeal Publishing 2015; Rs 400; pp 262

– Shana Susan Ninan

Asuri Vasudevan’s The Banana and the Peepul Leaf is full of turns – life poses several choices to us; sometimes flinging the most apt one at our faces. Relationships and the strings attached to them form the crux of Vasudevan’s sequel to Cloudburst.

Kama is an interesting concept. It is intriguing, deep and desirous. You can even call it the protagonist of the story, the central force upon which the story revolves. How do people of different races fall in love? How do they stay in love? For Radha, it is love at first sight when she sees Prakash and the fact that Prakash is a married man is dismissed as a minor detail. Prakash is attracted to Radha’s sensuality even though he is very much in love with his wife.

As youngsters trying to make a place for themselves in the world, Phillip and Gomi have to make a sense of their yearnings for each other. Prakash’s wife Kathy sensing her husband’s betrayal uses the same approach partly to pacify herself and partly to radically transform the life of someone she cares for. For Kathy’s friend and soul sister Maya, sex is the culmination of companionship.

Based in Mumbai, Vasudevan is an economist, with specialisations in central banking and international finance. He has worked in various countries on long stints, and have been advisor in several international organisations. The story is spread across Asia, Africa and America.

In the book, what I cherished the most is the ending – it isn’t usual, and there’s a punch to it. The book cover is simple and lucid, a pointer to the lives unravelled inside. It’s a great book for a weekend read, full of surprises and interesting quips and quotes.

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 8.2/10 (13 votes cast)
27
Jan

Strike One!

200px-CuckoosCallingCover

Review of The Cuckoo’s Calling; Robert Galbraith; Mulholand Books; pp 464

– Shana Susan Ninan

Robert Galbraith. Now, who would have guessed this to be the famous fantasy writer J. K. Rowling’s pseudonym? Well, the book is a roaring success. It’s gripping and a fun read, all the way until the last sentence! As this book was one among a gift pack of three, I was in no hurry to read it. And let’s say, I hadn’t seen the part about Rowling on the blurb yet. But, boy, when I got to it, I couldn’t leave the book. Divided into four large chapters, it drew me back each time I put it down.

The woman has her ways. Rowling hasn’t used an ounce of magic in this plot – she mesmerizes her reader through absolutely loveable detective language and tonnes of charisma only a crime fiction can allow. Published in 2013, The Cuckoo’s Calling revolves around the life and office of Cormoran Strike, a one-legged, decorated war hero. His latest (and only, at the moment) case comes from the brother of a late friend of his. Battling his own demons and a now-ex-fiancée of a 15-year on-off relationship, he dives into the centre of the action. Trying to reinvestigate Bristow’s mixed-race, adopted, supermodel sister Lula Landry’s suicide, he unearths much more than he can hold, often having to rely on his temp’s support – in work and in life. Robin, his temporary secretary, is intuitive and much more brilliant than an average typist-telephone operator. She herself goes on minor investigative sojourns and returns triumphant.

The private investigator and his temp are now pulled into the world of high fashion, papparazzis, aristocratic multibillionaires and coke-snorting rockstars. Working on something the Met has already ruled a suicide, he has a lot on his hands, and those that knew Lula aren’t that forthcoming. Lula’s boyfriend, musician and part film actor Evan Duffield as well her closest supermodel friend Ciara Porter are very much caught in the headlights.

Strike’s and Robin’s characters are most well-rounded. So is Bristow’s. The others actors in the plot have been moulded neatly to fit into the narrative. Strike’s past and his family’s weird history come into the story in bits, in grape-sized bits that’s juicy and intriguing, at the same time, unravelling his life in front of the reader. The title is apt and keeps you guessing quite into the middle of the story.

I wonder how this book would’ve been received, without the Rowling tag, when it was first published. Would the readers lap it up unbeknownst that it was written by one of the best storyteller’s in the world right now? I surely did. This one’s standing on its own legs, and not on the fame of the Potter series writer.

VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 9.0/10 (11 votes cast)