Saturday, August 31, 2013

Review : If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- March 8th, 2013)

Putting into exact words all the feelings this book evokes in the reader, is a task not just
tremendously challenging but virtually impossible to execute.
After getting through the first few pages, I felt like Naomi Watts in The Ring, being pulled into the world of the creepy video by Samara.
I know that's a rather cheap analogy. Comparing a creation of one of the most well known post-modernist writers to have emerged from Europe to a Hollywood version of a Japanese film, is pretty close to blaspheming.
But then nothing more apt comes to mind at the moment.

If on a winter's night a traveler is Calvino's tribute to the spirit of reading, writing and the utterly unique but beautiful relationship between a writer and a reader.
In an inimitable style and with mordant wit he has dissected the art of writing and the melange of emotions any writer is bound to go through while working on his newest masterpiece, irrespective of whether it is aimed at garnering record sales or becoming a piece of critically acclaimed literature. He has also reached out from within the pages of the book, grabbed hold of the reader, sucked him/her right into the heart of the narrative(if you call it that) and taken him/her on a delightfully unpredictable journey where he/she is simultaneously the reader, the writer and a character at the mercy of a writer's whims.

In a nutshell, this is Italo Calvino serenading the reader and the spirit of this wonderful but singular form of communication that exists between two individuals who may never know each other in person but for a few blissful hours/days of their lives, feel bonded to each other on an alternate level in ways, unimaginable by a third party.
Because just as the reader tries to form an image of the story-teller in his/her mind, the writer too keeps his/her prospective reader in mind while penning down his/her thoughts.

A pure work of genius that is bound to enthrall readers for generations to come and perhaps it won't be an exaggeration to state that many aspiring writers may want to adopt this book as their Bible.

P.S:- Not recommended for readers looking for a great story to read. Since this is Calvino manipulating, baffling, exasperating and dazzling the reader in equal measure and in quick succession by writing the exact opposite (for lack of a better term) of a conventional novel.

5 out of 5 stars.

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Review : Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- April 30th, 2013)

Neither does a war bring glory nor does a win in one ensure the moral infallibility of one
ideology over a conflicting one. Because essentially, war justifies countering genocide with more genocide. We all know that, right?
But nope, we don't. We only think we do. And that is what Kurt Vonnegut wishes to tell his reader, in a calm, detached and emotionless voice in Slaughterhouse Five.
He informs us, quite matter-of-factly that we don't know the first thing about a war and proceeds to explain to us what it really is, by fashioning a narrative as abstruse, disjointed and meaningless as war itself.
I must make a confession despite how morbid this may sound. I have a thing for war books because it's endlessly fascinating to read about the two World Wars which helped define our identity as a civilization in the last century. And despite the horrendous nature of crimes against humanity that were committed in both, these two wars held up a mirror in front of us where we could recognize our own failings as human beings and rectify our mistakes.
Which is why I agree with Tan Twan Eng's views on World War II:-,
"Moments in time when the world is changing, bring out the best and the worst in people."

But Vonnegut neither eulogizes war nor seeks to make our hearts bleed for the unimaginable loss and suffering it brings. Instead, he gives the traditional perspective on war a new twist by giving us a prolonged glimpse into the mind of a war veteran who neither considered himself a hero nor a coward. 

Billy Pilgrim's life or the way he viewed his own life in retrospect, was as chaotic and nonsensical as the war he fought in. It is the sheer absurdity of the concept of war that takes center stage in this highly experimental novel - how we carry on with our broken lives with a perverse sense of humor in the face of mindless cruelty and utter madness.

5 out of 5 stars.

Review : Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

(Review originally posted on Goodreads:- November 16, 2012)

Dear Ms Taylor, there's not even a shred of doubt in my mind about your ability to tell a story
in the most enigmatic and captivating fashion. You have made your characters appear straight out of our exaggeratedly romanticized fantasies where everything is grandiosely beautiful - even the most evil and terrifying things. Your Prague is every bit as surreal and out of this world as Eretz.
The same can be said about your prose. It is mesmerizingly soothing and reading this book felt like listening to a delightful piece of musical composition where no note feels jarring or misplaced.
But even so, I'm sorely disappointed. DoSaB has no tale to tell. While the beautiful writing, kept me going smoothly at least till the middle point, I kept waiting for something...anything... to happen. But nothing ever did, except at the very end and by that time it didn't matter anymore.

The brilliantly conceived set-up is there. The characters, albeit very stereotypical ones, are there. The language and similes and metaphors and all kinds of literary embellishments are there. 
But where's a good story? Where's character development? Where's the suspense? Where's the mystery? Where's the drama? Where's the romance? 

At least a quarter of the book is devoted to flashbacks and memories. Another quarter to Karou and Akiva angsting over each other. Another quarter to Karou and her chimaera family (which was the best part in my opinion). And another to Karou's hair and Akiva's eyes.
I'm not kidding. I should've counted the number of times the writer alluded to Karou's blue hair and the similes she devoted to its description. Same with Akiva's eyes and his ethereal, impossible beauty.
Sure sure we get it, Laini. They're both surreally beautiful beyond what our feeble imaginations can conceive. Can you please move on now?

Another thing which irked me beyond measure was the love story. I was supposed to be mooning over Akiva and Karou, feeling sympathy for their fate of star-crossed lovers. Instead I felt detached and some measure of annoyance. 
Why did they fall in love with each other again?
Uh they just did. Just like that. I can't remember why but they just did. And it's supposed to be romantic and heart-breaking except that I just don't feel it is.

Last but not the least, the thing which finally caused me to abandon hope for this book was its dilly-dallying between two heroines (although both are one and the same). We start the book thinking it's all Karou. Then Madrigal comes barelling into the story from nowhere and pushes her completely out of the picture. From then on, it's all her. 

And just when I was developing some sort of liking for her, she is gone. Poof! And Karou is handed back to me as unceremoniously as possible, when I can't quite figure out whether I want her back again.

An eloquently-worded novel, but not a good story. Certainly not worth spending rare hours of free time over.

2 out of 5 stars.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review : Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- March 9, 2013) 

Sometimes I get this nagging suspicion that there's a greater conspiracy at work to make women writers all over the world feel unloved and unappreciated.
*cough* V.S. Naipaul *cough*

There's a deliberateness in the way most fiction authored by women is either labelled 'chick lit' and dismissed right away without a second thought or made light of under various other excuses.

Why else would this book have an average rating below 3.5 on Goodreads?

Let me offer you a word of advice. Don't go by the beautiful cover, it is highly deceptive.
Neither is Xiaolu Guo's protagonist half as slender or as pretty the girl on it nor is this book about a girl navigating her way through the world of dating and singles and finding her 'one true love' who sees her 'inner beauty'.

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth brings into focus the position of women in a country rapidly elevating itself to a position of profound importance in the global arena but curiously enough, lacking conspicuously in the human rights department.
It explores themes of isolation, urban boredom, the sheer tragedy of everyday life, personal freedom and the deep disconnect between an increasingly authoritative Communist regime and disillusioned citizens, in a quintessentially nonchalant manner.

Xiaolu Guo's heroine Fenfang speaks in a slangy Chinese, swears often and has extremely messy living habits. She is strangely apathetic to the happenings in her own life and has the rare ability of analyzing most aspects of it with a matter-of-factness that is as scary as it is unique.
After having quit the disturbingly monotonous life in the countryside where her parents are but humble farmers with little variety in their daily routines, a starry-eyed Fenfang comes to Beijing with dreams of becoming a film actress or a script-writer. But quickly she discovers, the city is not all that it is hyped up to be. Directors aren't interested in casting her as the lead, script-writers and producers won't even read stories 'written by a woman' let alone accepting them as scripts for tv shows. And the old-fashioned folks of her neighborhood who take pride in sporting red Communist armbands to boot, are disapproving of the smartly dressed, independent, young female who has the audacity to bring a man home at night.
Refusing to lose heart, Fenfang starts working as extras on film and tv drama sets and slowly but surely begins carving out a niche for herself. She makes peace with stalkers, violent, physically absent, insensitive boyfriends, the cockroaches in her apartment and even the police who arrest her just to deliver a lecture on ideal behavior expected of an 'unmarried woman' and the unreasonableness of a woman being too 'individualistic'.
But even in the midst of these bleakest of surroundings, she finds an answer to the eternally baffling question of what true freedom really means.

This book has tried to lay Beijing bare - reveal the ugly side of a city which still insists upon practising blatant sexism and vigilantly guarding obsolete ideals in the 21st century, while maintaining the facade of rapid infrastructural development.
And it has helped me come to the realization that it is indeed possible to merge pertinent socio-political issues seamlessly with an otherwise ordinary story of an ordinary girl.

Neither has Xiaolu Guo tried to present this book as highbrow literature nor has she made the effort to write long, verbose sentences replete with symbolism or imagery. Instead she has directed her energies at highlighting the predicament of the young, modern woman all over the world and especially in a country like China, where the so-called 'weaker sex' is still not in the driver's seat. And for me, this is an achievement she deserves praise for.

A 3.5 stars rounded off to a willing, impressed 4 stars.

Review : The Stand by Stephen King

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- Feb 02, 2013)

One of the reasons why I would never club Stephen King together with any of the other best-selling writers of his generation (Grisham, Archer, Patterson, Sheldon and so on) is this :-
None of them match King's calibre as a story-teller.They don't even come close.

If somebody spins an intriguing tale, his characters get in the way of my enjoyment of it.
If somebody excels at characterization, his plotting is rather unconvincing.
If somebody plots a story well, then his writing turns out to be flat.
(And if you're unlucky enough, some of them mess everything up.)

But Stephen King, possesses that rare talent of getting everything right - the story, the unraveling of the plot, the imagery, the underlying implications, the characters, the backdrop, the world-building, the writing - down to the very last detail. 
He can grasp your attention at the onset, reel you in slowly but surely, give you nerve-wracking moments of pure anxiety, make you visualize a scene exactly the way he must have imagined it, feel for the characters in his story as if they were people of flesh and blood you were familiar with and, at some point, render you completely incapable of discerning between reality and the make-believe world of his imagination. And you're caught in the same nightmare as the characters of his book are plunging deeper into with every passing moment. 

The Stand is one such Stephen King creation. Arguably known as his best written work yet, The Stand, I'm happy to inform readers, deserves every bit of the praise and adulation it continues to receive worldwide till this day. 
Now don't get me wrong. The book is nothing new when you glance at the blurb. It is nothing you haven't already read or known about because it is the story your mom/dad/grandma must have read to you as a kid - while you listened moon-eyed with wonder and awe, overcome with emotions you couldn't quite fathom. 
It is the ever-fascinating and timeless tale of good triumphing over evil that you have come across enough times yet can never possibly get over. 
It is that same story, but with a distinct Stephen King-esque flavour.
Add a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, anarchic world in the grip of an epidemic that claimed most human lives to the eternal conflict between good and evil, and the summation result will lead to The Stand.
But it is so much more than this simple one-sentence summary. Every character, every plot device, every written scene has been constructed and put together so fastidiously in this book that at the end of it one feels that the reader is assigned with the task of collecting and preserving every piece of the gigantic puzzle to form this humbling, larger-than-life image the author had begotten.
Everything is done so ingeniously, that the mesmerized reader can only sit back and watch this spectacle of gargantuan proportions unfolding right in front of his/her mind's eyes. 
Horror, psychological ramifications of events, political intrigue, war, chaos in the absence of a centralized administration, a crumbling world order, basest of our human tendencies - King doesn't shy away from exploring the entire gamut of human actions and emotions in a world where nothing of the old establishments has survived.

This man can write. There's no doubt about it.

In terms of sheer volume, scale and narrative sweep, it is an epic. In a way it is The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, The Iliad and The Odyssey or a concoction of all the elements that transformed each one of these stories into epics the world will never cease to look upon with the utmost respect. 
It is the story that never becomes stale despite the number of years you insert between the time you read it first and read it for the umpteenth time in some other form. It is the story that transcends barriers of language, culture, religion and history and will always be told and retold in possible ways imaginable, for as long as humanity survives.
It is the story you are bound to be won over by even if you're snotty enough to swear by your copy of Ulysses and frown upon the Stephen Kings of the world of writing simply because they don't have much of a chance of ever winning the Man Booker or Pulitzer or *gasp* the Nobel Prize.
It is the story of good, evil and everything in between. It is the story of love and hatred, loyalty and betrayal, sin and redemption, fate and co-incidence, rationality and the inexplicable. Of unalterable mistakes and innocence lost. Of the goodness of the human heart and the face of the Devil.
At 1100+ pages, it was rather much too short. 
I almost wished for it to never end. 
But then again one can always re-read to start the cycle of awesomeness all over again.

5 awestruck stars out of 5.

Review : An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- Feb 16, 2013)

If you've already read The Remains of the Day  chances are your enjoyment of An Artist of the Floating World will be greatly curtailed. And that is the sheer tragedy of this book.

Replace Stevens with Ono san. Replace a financially unstable England with post-war Japan and insert Ishiguro's penchant for allegory. And TADA, you have An Artist of the Floating World.
It had potential to be a very emotionally charged commentary of a nation re-building itself from its charred (atomic-bombed) rubble and reflecting on the flawed ideologies of its notorious past.
But instead it felt like a curious combination of The Remains of the Day and A Pale view of Hills.

If in TRotD, Stevens laments living a life devoted to serving a Nazi-sympathizing, anti-Semite Lord with unquestioning loyalty, in here, Ono san experiences feelings of profound guilt for having created paintings supporting the war and Imperial jingoism. We see Ono repeatedly trying to convince himself that his ideals were not at fault and he only did what his own conscience permitted him to, at the time.
But at the fag end of the narrative, Ono comes to terms with his 'mistakes' and even ends up offering an unsolicited apology to his daughter's father in law at her miai (marriage interview in Japanese).

Translation:- Ishiguro virtually makes Japan get down on its knees and apologize to the world for all the crimes against humanity it committed during the War. The floating world of the pleasure district that Ono san uses as a theme for his paintings is actually a symbol for a floating, unstable Japan about to turn over a new leaf.

I can't exactly put my finger on what I did not find appealing in this book. Maybe it's the matter-of-fact tone of Ono's voice in this narrative which will tend to annoy the reader at some point. Maybe it's the glaring similarities with TRotD. Or maybe it's the Booker-nominated writer Tan Twan Eng saying how he reads this book at least once every year which caused me to have really high expectations.

I thought a book had to create an incredibly strong impact for it to be Eng's all-time-favorite. But I guess as a native of Malaysia, he must have strong sentiments associated with any book which talks about Japan's shameful past as colonial master of most of south-east Asia.

So my advice to the uninitiated will be : Read Ishiguro's works in order or at least read this one before reading The Remains of the Day.

3 underwhelmed stars out of 5.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Review : A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- December 23, 2012)

It's hard not to have preconceived notions about a book which was published after its author had committed suicide and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.
And sometimes these notions may end up skewing our view of a book or even tend to drive feelings toward a specific direction.
But this book does not.
In fact, it engages you from the get go and as you get acquainted with each one of the ensemble of quirky characters you forget about everything else. You burst into spontaneous laughter at their antics, but also feel for their predicament.
A Confederacy of Dunces takes a look at the outer realm of the American society consisting of the weirdos, the oddballs, the poor, the destitute, the lower-ranked policemen, petty criminals, the strippers and 'immoral' stripbar owners, the working class, the minority groups.
Through the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, our protagonist and a delusional, obese,self-obsessed 30-years old aberration of a grown man, the author spins a predominantly humorous tale revolving around a multitude of characters.
And by humorous I mean laugh-out-loud kind of humorous or the kind of humorous that can make you choke violently on the juice you had been unwise enough to sip on while reading this book. You have been warned.
But the book is much more than that - more like a social commentary disguised as a comedy. Hilarious, charming, witty, beautifully prosaic and a true modern classic.
If you suddenly find this book in your possession after this Christmas, consider that Fortuna spun your wheel exactly in the right direction.

5 out of 5 stars.

Review : Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- Jan 18,2013)

There's something about Japanese writers. They have the unparalleled ability of transforming an extremely
ordinary scene from our everyday mundane lives into something magical and other-worldly. A man walking along a river-bank on a misty April morning may appear to our senses as an ethereal being, barely human, on the path to deliverance and self-discovery.
There's something profoundly melancholic yet powerfully meaningful about the beautiful vignettes they create. No one else does surrealistic imagery better than Japanese writers.

Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto, is no exception to this convention.
Revolving around the theme of dealing with loss, Kitchen focuses on two young women as protagonists and their perceptions of life and death.
It tells us about how recurring personal tragedies shape and reshape our views on life and death, the kind of catharsis we wish for and the mechanisms we often end up resorting to, in order to keep our personal grief from spilling over into our everyday reality.
Kitchen is definitely the not the most ingeniously narrated tale ever. Rather it suffers from the monotony of brief, simple sentences that may not sit well with some readers who love eloquence.
But this simplistic mode of narration, helps it stay true to its original intention, that of recounting the story of ordinary people doing ordinary things yet coming to unexpected realizations about the great quandary of life.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review : The Casual Vacancy

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- January 15, 2013)

Well much has been said and written about this book already throughout the latter part of last year. But here's my twopence on Rowling's ambitious adult novel, which in my opinion has received a rather harsh reception.

This book is grey. As grey as grey can be.
It is an intense introspection on the bleakness of modern day urban life, the dynamics of various human relationships, which may seem ordinary on the surface but reveal complexities just beneath that showy exterior - where the basis of each one is some deeply personal interest and little else. Where every human action is steeped in the fundamental need for fulfillment of some ulterior, personal objective. And it is more about people of flesh and blood, like you and I, rather than a story.

Rowling takes her sweet little time (which costs many of the readers much of their patience) to establish an imaginary suburban neighborhood and its various quirky inhabitants - unscrupulous, prejudiced councilmen, hypocritical educators, pedophiles, violent, abusive fathers, problematic teenagers, promiscuous adolescent girls, drug addicts, drug dealers and pimps, victims of sexual abuse, rape, jittery, reluctant boyfriends, emotionally absent husbands and sexually frustrated, disgruntled wives. But Rowling's achievement lies in the fact that she makes all her characters appear as humane as possible without ever forcefully pushing any one of them either into the realm of abject villainy or highly romanticized heroism. They have their share of good and bad traits. Although, noticeably, the bad in them is much more pronounced.

Rowling dishes out reality in its most vicious and ugly form and leaves nothing to the imagination. She never tries to tone down the scale of the tragedy, everyday mundane life entails. The tragedies we either prefer to shove under the carpet or try and forget about by donning a mask of make-believe contentment.
Pagford is the dystopia of Rowling's imagination and each one of its residents are bizarre enough to be the subject of a psychoanalyst's case study.
In a simple sentence, The Casual Vacancy is Rowling's exegesis on human nature.

Initially I had decided on a meagre 3-star rating but towards the end, Rowling kicks up the ante a notch or two and gives us some some solid plot developments. Her characterization is beyond brilliant and a major asset to this story.
And it becomes quite a page-turner towards the end as the very disturbing narrative hurtles towards an unavoidably tragic ending.

This woman gave a generation of kids (like me) a story so special and awe-inspiring, that it became a part of their lives forever. There's no chance in hell that she can write anything mediocre or substandard.
But, maybe....just maybe I was nurturing hope, in some obscure corner of my heart, of something life-altering and magnificent from her once again.
No, I wasn't naive enough to expect another Harry Potter but I wasn't expecting her ambitious adult novel to leave such a bitterly sharp after-taste in my mouth either.
That made me take away the one remaining star.
Sorry, Jo. Maybe next time.

P.S:-I can't help but wonder, is TCV Rowling's commentary on contemporary England?
I certainly hope not.

4 out of 5 stars.

Review : The Remains of the Day

(Orginial review posted on Goodreads:- November 24, 2012)

When I had merely read about 30 or so pages of this book, I must confess I was debating whether or not to
continue with it, given the unbearably slow pacing of the plot.
And then when I had finally reached the end, I couldn't help but feel immensely thankful to my own better judgement against giving it up. Since by that time I had been reduced to a pathetic, blubbering mass of emotions and tears, teetering on the verge of a major breakdown and marvelling at the writer's remarkable achievement at the same time.

The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro's ode to England - its bygone glories, numerous idiosyncrasies and fallacies.
Through the life of Stevens, the protagonist and an uptight butler to a distinguished Lord, Ishiguro takes us on a journey of a nation through two wars which crippled it financially and relegated it to the sidelines of international politics as another nation slowly rose to take its place. But it is not merely the tale of a tottering Britain but also a human drama centering around themes such as self-discovery, lasting regret, nostalgia, unfulfilled love and the enduring desire to start over anew.
Stevens is not merely a symbol of the inimitable sophistication that defines English culture but also an emblem of the undeniable hollowness of it. Of the unalterable mistakes committed in the course of a long and eventful journey - be it the journey of life of a man or one nation.

Even though the verbosity of Ishiguro's prose may tend to make the narrative monotonous from time to time, it is never too big an impediment to navigate around. In fact it is the elegant language which catapults this novel into the league of classic English literature. Besides the unhurried, tender nuances of Ishiguro's story-telling do not deserve any less.

Oh yes he most certainly deserved the Man Booker for this.

5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review : The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- June 21, 2013)

I'm trying very badly not to launch into a full fledged rant against this book as I type this out because rants
are rarely, if ever, proper reviews. And I want to pose a rational argument explaining my dislike for this book.
As much as the sexist ramblings of the protagonist and the selfish, irrational actions of the main characters served to irritate me to a great extent, I still reigned in my impatience and held out hope for the narrative till the time I was done with the very last page. But sadly enough, the ending left me not only disappointed but positively fuming with anger.
(Spoiler ahead)

I always welcome flawed characters in literature because truly what real person is perfect? or even close to being perfect?
Characters are meant to act like morons, do things that defy logic and frustrate us and yet earn our empathy in the end simply by virtue of their being human. But forget empathy, I just did not feel an ounce of anything for the central characters here except some occasional annoyance for abruptly starting one-sided conversations with this entity called 'God'.
As is obvious from the title this is about an affair, a torrid one at that, which ends badly and its subsequent repercussions. But the author just had to drag the much hyped up subject of 'God' into this and translate his love/hate for a woman into his love/hate for 'God'. How his insatiable desire for a woman forced him to confront his own atheistic/agnostic values and come closer to acknowledging the importance of faith. Which I didn't mind that much either, really.

But how do you look the other way when every other line of a passage has either the word 'God' or 'You' or 'Him' in it and the characters are engaging in endless monologues with 'Him'? (Please pay attention to how I am deliberately overlooking the crucial debate on God's gender)
'God' is a subject that I am yet to face head on and make my peace with. But my attitude so far has been a little like Haruki Murakami's in Kafka on the Shore -

“If you think God’s there, He is. If you don’t, He isn’t. And if that’s what God’s like, I wouldn’t worry about it.”

I can tolerate a healthy dose of reflections on religion, faith and worship, IF it is served with a touch of rationale and has the capacity to appeal to even the staunch non-believer. Like in a Life of Pi-ish way - nothing life-altering or too preachy but still understandable.
But I hate it when 'God' is shoved right in my face in long, winding passages replete with repetitive rhetorical questions. It's like 'He' is a character in this without being one. A passive, ubiquitous presence which steals everybody's thunder without doing a damned thing.
Was this about the affair or about 'God' or Catholicism? or was it about the author's attempt at coming to terms with the tragedy of his affair by seeking a form of oneness with 'God' and something bigger than life itself?
It's like Greene carelessly threw away chunks of the bigger picture but did not strive towards aiding the reader in stitching them all together. Which is why the book just stopped short of making a much larger impact.
If I am to take this novel only as a piece of autobiographical writing and a tribute to Greene's affair with one Lady Catherine Walston, then maybe some of my criticism automatically becomes void. But since this is a work of fiction, I think my points of contention are quite valid.
Dear 'God', you do not impress me in the least, especially when characters are citing 'You' as an excuse for their reluctance to behave like logical human beings.
Although there are few points in the narrative where the humanity of the characters shine through and one can't help but feel for their dilemma and suffering.

2 out of 5 stars.

Review : High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- December 10, 2012)

High Fidelity is several things at once. 
It is a specimen of ladlit - romance and single life explained from the point of view of a man. And we have so few of those. 
It is a humorous reflection on life and its many failings.
And lastly, it is the tale of a Brit singleton in his mid thirties who is unrelentingly firm in his reluctance to grow into a man.
A man who is so caught up in his fantasies of the ultimate love one is destined to end up with, that he ignores the woman who truly cares for him and consequently ends up losing her.
So the novel begins with our protagonist, Rob Fleming, listing the 5 major break-ups of his life which either hurt him too much or ended up changing him as a person for good. And he takes vicious pleasure in informing the reader that Laura, the woman who just left him, doesn't make the top 5, doesn't even come close.
How could you not get sucked into a book which begins on such a promising note?

An owner of a dingy vinyl record shop named Championship Vinyl, Rob and his two employee-cum-sidekicks Dick and Barry stumble through the maze of life, more often than not clueless about what they are doing.
They debate merits and demerits of obscure bands and music artists and are generous in their display of disdain for the ones who love their Beatles, Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Elton John and the usuals. And these hilarious conversations centering around mundane things like tv shows, movies, music and women lend the plot much of its frivolity and humour. Especially Barry, who is described by Rob as a 'snob obscurantist', makes you laugh uncontrollably with his habit of belittling everything, his sneaky tactics of selling records of artists no one has heard of and his interactions with Dick.
And so the plot meanders through the zigzagging life of Rob, touches briefly upon the lives of all the women with whom he had been in love at some point of time and settles on his on-and-off relationship with Laura.

High Fidelity comes as close to portraying single life and romance as it actually is and not in the larger-than-life Hollywood rom-comish way. It talks about the things we all do in relationships - how we decide how much to reveal to the other person. How our feelings for a person waver time and again and how we often falter, unable to decide what we want. How we hurt the other person in the process. How we realize how precious a relationship was only after it has ended. And more importantly how we are ever afraid of making that feared transformation - be it from girl to woman or boy to man.

Nick Hornby's debut novel is a charming creation - it is like a music record by an artist you may not have heard of but you can relate to the music, nonetheless. 
And you can't help but want to play the record all over again. 

4 out of 5 stars.

Review : The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

(Original review posted on Goodreads:- January 22, 2013)

The great C.S. Lewis had opined -
"A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest"
And who, indeed, would dare contradict him? I had kept myself away from the Chronicles of Narnia for a long time, believing I had already outgrown that phase of my life that would've endeared me to this famed set of fantasy tales written for children. How wrong I was!
Finally when I did read 'The Magician's Nephew', I wanted to slap myself for being so hopelessly prejudiced.

With 'The Catcher in the Rye', I'm faced with the same realization all over again.

Some books are written so well, so masterfully that you are bound to get the message the writer had slipped in skilfully somewhere between its pages for the perceptive reader to find and cherish like treasure, only if you care to lay off the pre-ordained feelings and biases.
Sure, I agree, nothing ever happens in this book. The prose, in Holden's own overused words, can be described as 'boring' and insipid in my own. But that is what Salinger had wanted it to be.

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have liked Holden had I read this as a teen. I would've considered him a whiny, nitpicking pain in the rear. A kid trying to sound and behave like an adult and, of course, failing at it miserably.
But now that I'm a full-fledged adult, capable of knowing what I want and what I don't, I can understand Holden much better. I can't help but feel a sort of grudging respect for Holden's daring act of breaking away even if for a little while, from the compulsions and responsibilities of that life threw his way, the expectations of peers and adults surrounding him.
His voice is so full of pain, loneliness, resentment and all the amorphous emotions of that age, that it's near impossible not to relate to it.

A sense of pure isolation, a feeling of being adrift in the big, bad world with barely anything or anyone acting as an anchor. Faced with problems you previously did not even know existed, an ever-widening gap with the members of the opposite sex. A mass of confusing, blurry thoughts swirling inside your head that you would rather prefer to push away than disentangle one by one and analyze. Sometimes not being sure of what you want to do and what you are supposed to do. Stuck somewhere in a time-warp, on the brink of adulthood yet not quite so, not even close. Demanding to be treated with respect and dignity like an adult, yet to be loved as a child. I'm sure we have all gone through the same motions at some point of time in our lives.
Holden reminds us of that period even if we may not see in him the teenager each one of us had been, individually. He is simply a personification of those confusing, bitter, hazy years that precede the surer, firmer, more secure years.

And if we maybe honest enough with ourselves, we'll find a Holden all holed up somewhere in the darkest recesses of our psyche, eternally disdainful and critical of the people and things around us. It's just that we've gotten better at swallowing urges to lash out at the 'phoniness' of it all.
Holden's appeal is timeless. And I'm quite sure, I'll like The Catcher in the Rye when I read it years down the line.
And for this reason alone, this book rightly deserves the epithet of a true classic.
This is THE YA novel.

5 out of 5 stars.

Review : The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

(Review written originally on:- June 18, 2011)

Never has a book made me experience one too many conflicting emotions side by side. Never has a book managed to infuriate, astound, shock, disgust, terrify yet charm me at the same time. The international best-seller named The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (as it is known in Swedish) deserves every bit of the craze and the recognition it has achieved worldwide since its first publication in 2005. I have about zilch intention of giving away even a brief overview of the plot but for the sake of a
review I must. Hence.....

Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist and co-owner of the monthly magazine Millenium who had just lost a libel lawsuit filed against him by the Swedish business tycoon Hans-Erik Wennerström. His reputation at stake, he decides to distance himself from the magazine's management and publishing bodies. Around the same time he is offered a freelance assignment by Henrik Vanger, patriarch of the affluent Vanger family and CEO of Vanger Enterprises, which deals with cracking the mysterious case of his great-niece Harriet Vanger, who had disappeared without a trace 36 years ago. Facing a prison term of about 3 months and no better alternative in sight, Blomkvist decides to take up the job. At the same time we're introduced to the other protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year old, introverted, delinquent-like woman whose outward physical appearance replete with piercings and tattoos, repel most people she comes in contact with. An ingenius hacker who is also blessed with a photographic memory, she has the ability of digging up little-known yet vital information about public figures and documenting them with uncanny precision. She is assigned to do a thorough background check on Blomkvist by an aide of Henrik Vanger's. Eventually in the chain of events, she comes to work as an assistant for Blomkvist and helps him solve the intriguing case of Harriet Vanger and uncover a long chain of gruesome murders and aggravated sexual assaults against women spread throughout Sweden in turn. 

 To be honest, it is impossible to summarize an explosive novel like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in a paragraph or two. It will merely serve as an insult to the genius of Stieg Larsson, who has masterfully crafted a story out of the lives of Swedish corporate honchos, sexual sadism, misogyny, investigative reporting, journalistic values with a little bit of love thrown in as well. Hence it is a book you must read no matter how much you cringe at the graphic detailing of some of the crimes depicted. In any case you'll be compelled to read on as the mysteries continue to deepen till the very end.

Going by the writing style, Reg Keeland's translation seems to have managed to capture the underlying darkness of the story. I can only imagine how Larsson's original narration must have been like. There's a multitude of characters in the book and almost each one of them have been portrayed meticulously through their action or inaction. But none of them stand out as much as Lisbeth Salander's does. A victim of a violent sexual crime herself, she exacts retribution from her perpetrator in the most fitting way possible without having to resort to the law in which she doesn't place any faith in. Lisbeth is someone who'll hit back even harder and take control of a situation rather than be intimidated. She is socially awkward, incapable of developing long-term relationships with people or trust anyone, possibly due to the nature of her abnormal childhood years. She is perceived as a mentally retarded, repugnant woman by most and her inner brilliance always goes unnoticed. But then again Lisbeth is not one to care about what other people think of her. It is possibly because Blomkvist deals with her like he'd deal with any other normal human being, that Salander finds herself unable to treat him with the same calculated coldness she had always shown towards others.

Coming to the fallacies of the book, I must admit I couldn't find any. I was a bit surprised to find a mild love story angle developing towards the end as love is always an unnecessary baggage in thriller novels. However I understood the author's need to humanize Lisbeth, or at least offer her some sort of a balm to cast a calming effect on her tormented soul which she skilfully conceals underneath a mask of stoicism. Nothing more apt than love to achieve such a purpose. With the help of an inherently macabre theme of sexual violence, Larsson has tried his best to make the readers comprehend the brutality of a crime like rape or sodomy. And this seems to have been the main purpose of this book, given that Lisbeth's character has been named after a girl whom Larsson witnessed being gang-raped as a young boy.

 Thank you Stieg Larsson for deciding to publish the novels, otherwise the world would've missed out on one of the greatest trilogies in the mystery/thriller genre ever written.

5 glorious stars.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review : Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and DavidLevithan

(Original review written :- April 12, 2009)

I never really expected a book, each of whose pages are strewn with f-words to impress me. But uncannily enough this piece of young adult fiction by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan did. This book is about two teenagers each of whom are going through a difficult phase in their lives and how one night of togetherness helps change their views towards love, life and the future ahead.

Nick, the conventional 'nice guy' and the bassist of a band which doesn't have a fixed name, has just recently been dumped by his girlfriend Tris after he confessed that he loved her. Norah,on the other hand, is a loner despite having been in a relationship with the chauvinistic and the self-centred Tal for the last 3 years. She is the straight-A student, the feisty and a tad spoiled daughter of the hot-shot CEO of a record company and the chaperone of her best friend Caroline who is quite the party animal and gets drunk at every opportunity she gets. Norah is the witty, intelligent kind of girl who can't exactly be called hot but is beautiful in her own way if you notice carefully. Thus these two people meet on an eventful night while Nick and his band (they were calling themselves 'The Fuck-Offs' for the night...ridiculous huh?I know -_-) were performing in a certain club where Norah also happened to be present along with Caroline. And after Nick comes up to Norah and fake-propositions her with this corny line - “I know this is going to sound strange, but would you mind being my girlfriend for the next five minutes?” and she accepts his ludicrous proposal, their whirlwind journey through the night begins - a night during which they discover that their notions about love were prejudiced and learn how to deal with the demons of their past.

Norah who had been in only one relationship all her life instantly takes a liking to the decent and well-mannered Nick. Nick however finds it hard to get over Tris and entertain the idea of having a new girl in his life. Eventually though he comes around and realizes that Norah could be more than just his 'music soul-mate'. And all of this happens during the course of a single night as these two teenagers make their way through different clubs and gigs in Manhattan.

So now why do I like this book? The story seems like it has all the hackneyed themes of a typical young adult or 'chick lit' novel.
I think this is juvenile fiction at it's best. Because Nick and Norah are actual teenagers here who do not adhere to cliched portrayals of American teens who indulge in drugs, sex and alcohol in various high school dramas or tv shows. They have their own strong points and weaknesses. They are good and they are bad, at the same time. Profanity is a regular part of their vocabulary, yet there is nothing offensive about the way they hurl swear words at each other or others. It's almost like part of a tough guy/girl act on their part to hide the sadness that lies underneath the exterior.

Another thing that I liked about this book is that despite being a romance novel it never gets too mushy or cloyingly sweet. It's not the kind of romance where boy and girl meet, fall in love and get married after overcoming different kind of obstacles.
Nick and Norah discover how an ordinary night can turn out to be nothing short of spectacular and exciting when one has the right kind of company. It's almost as if forever is trapped somewhere inside that night where Nick and Norah and their relationship have endless possibilities. It could be that they end up married someday with a son named Salvatore as Norah muses ('Salvatore' was printed on Nick's jacket which he offers Norah). But for the moment, for the night ,it doesn't matter. This night is theirs and theirs only. And perhaps, it will stretch itself into both of their future lives.
Narrated alternatively by Nick and Norah, the story is fast-paced and the dialogue, witty and sarcastic. A recommended read for teenagers and also for readers who like their romance novels without the dose of mush.

P.S:- I watched the movie after finishing with the book but as usual was disappointed. Michael Cera and Kat Dennings made a good lead pair but the screenplay was bad - even yucky in parts (Caroline and her chewing gum-eww). For Heaven's sake why don't the directors follow the original storyline of the novels? I, for one, feel the end-product will turn out to be much better if they followed this simple rule.

Review : The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown


(Orginial review written on:- October 3, 2009)

Before I begin let me inform you all that this is not to be considered a conventional book review. Without giving out a summary or spoilers (I'm sure many still haven't read it) I'd try to sum up my views on Dan Brown's latest installment.
So then let's start at the beginning. The fact that I got hold of this book on the very day it released worldwide and yet managed to finish reading it only yesterday should,in itself, be considered a miracle. That's because if a book manages to capture my interest I usually devour it within a single day(at the most 2 days) no matter how lengthy it might be. But unfortunately I read The Lost Symbol over a span of a week.
This probably speaks volumes of how unimpressed I'm with Dan Brown this time.

Anyway without digressing any further let's come to the plot:-

To tell you the truth this novel has no actual plot because it had no aim from the very beginning.
So what does this book have then?

The answer consists of - Robert Langdon, his long time friend and mentor Peter Solomon who's in mortal danger,a deluded lunatic as the bad guy (just like always), Peter Solomon's beautiful sister as Langdon's companion for the night who's conducting some highly important research work on Noetic Sciences (just another replacement for Vittoria Vetra or Sophie Neveu), Freemasons, the CIA and of course an all-too-familiar routine of figuring out hidden codes, symbols, puzzles so as to thwart the villain's plans and save the world from disaster before it's too late.

Okay that's all good. But what is Robert Langdon doing here? - Half the time he is arguing quite uselessly with the other characters saying he doesn't believe in an ancient Masonic legend, around which the entire plot revolves.
I think a man who had discovered Mary Magdalene's tomb in his earlier adventure should have a more broad-minded perspective than that.
The time he spends deciphering few codes spans only 15-20 pages of the 339 page book(e-book). The rest of it is filled with too much information about the Masons, Solomon family stories and the warped thoughts of the psychopath villain.

Even though Angels and Demons had quite a far-fetched plot it never failed to make the reader gasp. Atleast it had some edge-of-the-seat suspense to offer. Also the age-old animosity between the Illuminati and the Church provided quite an intriguing backdrop.
Same with The Da Vinci Code. The controversy surrounding the Holy Grail, Mary Magdalene and the Merovingians was spicy enough to keep the reader enthralled till the very end.
But the Masons are not that interesting.
On one hand they are an ancient brotherhood dedicated to searching for light (symbolizing supreme knowledge) amidst darkness and on the other hand they're protecting an ancient wisdom for centuries which supposedly has the power to bring about man's ultimate enlightenment.
Contradictory isn't it?
And why keep something secret that is supposed to benefit mankind?
Uh yea right 'cause it might fall into the wrong hands and result in disasters of unimaginable proportions.
As if the world isn't already in chaos and on the verge of destruction. We could sure do with some ultimate knowledge (or whatever) in these troubled times.

Unlike his previous adventures Langdon does not make a startling discovery at the very end. Nobody gets to know what the Ancient Mysteries actually are. Brown only provides us with a brief overview which is not enough. And this is where the readers are bound to feel disappointed.

I think maybe it's time to put Robert Langdon to rest. We've had enough of religious symbology, secret societies and historical controversies. Though I won't mind another Deception Point or Digital Fortress.(I liked these 2 novels much better than your latest work Mr. Brown)

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Review : Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

(Original review written :- October 30, 2011)

Sadness is indeed a very complicated emotion. It has the uncanny ability of dissolving the edges of reality
surrounding you and immersing you completely in an alternate world, where only you and that feeling exist together in complete harmony. And nothing else matters. You luxuriate in the richness of its beauty and marvel at the tranquility it offers you.

Haruki Murakami's, Norwegian Wood evokes exactly similar kind of emotions in the reader.

There are some books you read, which leave you with stories-bitter, exciting, adrenaline-driven, romantic, depressing or grisly. And then there are books which leave you with feelings. Norwegian Wood, most definitely, belongs to the second category.
And in my opinion, it is infinitely easier to deconstruct a story in a review rather than the feeling it leaves you with. But here's an attempt anyway.

Norwegian Wood is a beautifully sad yet incredibly sensual tale of unfulfilled love where the central characters are, in all essence, broken individuals.
In a most indolent manner, the book begins with our narrator Toru Watanabe, catching the strains of an orchestral version of The Beatles' 'Norwegian wood' on a flight to Hamburg and beginning to reminisce about a certain girl named Naoko, from the days of his youth in Tokyo. From hereon, the story is told as a flashback, as a sliver of memory that the 37-year old Toru has carefully preserved or perhaps is struggling not to forget.
Majorly the story revolves around the trials and tribulations of the 3 key characters - Toru, Naoko and Midori.

Toru, a reserved young college student, is shown to be somewhat anti-social, not quite opening up to others as easily as others open up to him. There is a sense of profound sadness about him hidden skilfully under a veneer of indifference, probably arising out of losing his childhood friend Kizuki, who committed suicide at 17. While Naoko, Kizuki's first and only girlfriend, is a beautiful and emotionally fragile being who has been unable to grapple with the tragedy of Kizuki's untimely death. Still in mourning, bound by a mutual feeling of isolation, Toru and Naoko, forge an unnatural connection of sorts, when they cross each other's paths years later in Tokyo. Toru falls in love right away and even she feels something love-like for him, but sadly enough it is not enough to heal them both. Soon the emotionally unstable Naoko recedes to a sanatorium in mountainous Kyoto while Toru tries to continue with his life as an unremarkable university student, seeking comfort in sleeping with random women. In Naoko's continued absence from his life, he makes friends with the bright, sassy, sexually liberated Midori Kobayashi, who has had her fair share of tragedies too but still manages to be optimistic. An unlikely friendship with Midori, helps dissipate some of the darkness in Toru's life but he is still unable to get Naoko off his mind and keeps writing her letters irrespective of whether she sends a reply or not. The rest of the book details Toru's dilemma as he is torn between these two women, never too sure of whether to shun his troubled past and embrace reality as it comes or keep waiting for Naoko to fully recover from her festering psychological wounds.

Written in a lucid language, the book is full of metaphors usually represented by the description of natural scenery. Murakami's obsession with western classics and music is reflected in the countless references to Beatles numbers like "Yesterday", "Michelle", "Something", Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti and literary works of Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Mann, Karl Marx and so on.

The brief overview of the plot does not, in any way, do justice to the story. For a book like Norwegian Wood cannot be summarized.
It is about human relationships which cannot be given a name or a clear definition. It is about the ghastly spectre of death and the way the people who are no longer with us, sometimes leave us in a permanent state of damage. It is about friendship and love and sexuality. And most important of all, it is about sadness. In its cruelest yet most beautiful form. The inherent dreariness of the book gets to you at some point or the other, but Murakami's compelling story-telling ways, make sure you keep reading till the very end.

4 out of 5 stars.

Review : Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino

(Original review written:- May 11, 2013)

The task of reviewing a novel of the mystery-detective genre usually presents itself as a challenge to me. Not because it is hard to put into words what the story holds without giving away spoilers. But because a detective novel usually doesn't give a reviewer much to go on, aside from a convoluted mystery and the solution.

But despite being a book of the same genre,Salvation of a Saint, provides ample food for thought on the complexities of the human mind and offers the reader some philosophical meanderings to go with a regular offering of a mind-boggling mystery.

Without delay let me get to the summary now:-

Yoshitaka and Ayane Mashiba have been married for one year and yet their marriage is already falling apart. Why? Because turns out, both of them had agreed to treat marriage like a contractual agreement in which if Ayane fails to conceive a child within a year they will part ways. And, of course, Ayane has failed to conceive at the end of the stipulated time period.

So what happens next?  Yoshitaka declares he is leaving her because he has already found prospective new wife to replace Ayane. And it turns out the prospective new wife is none other than Ayane's protege, Hiromi Wakayama, whose talent Ayane has helped hone herself.

And to put the cap on this madness, Yoshitaka gets killed in his apartment while Ayane is away in Sapporo on a visit to her parents and the detective in charge of the investigation falls for Ayane at first sight even though she becomes the chief suspect.

But then of course, she has a rock solid alibi. She was away from Tokyo when Yoshitaka was murdered. How do you kill when you are physically hundreds of miles away from the victim?

Here in lies the novelty of Salvation of a Saint. It's not a whodunit as much as it is a howdunit.

To me the real villain of the story remains the victim and not the murderer. Because men who treat women like baby-producing machines and switch to one from another as easily as changing clothes, deserve to be at least squarely kicked in their family jewels, if not murdered outright. And I'm pleased to find out there are no misogynistic undertones in this narrative since Higashino doesn't gloss over this fact.

Now for my verdict on Higashino as a writer:-

If you are acquainted with anime such as Death NoteMonster or Detective School Q (Tantei Gakuen Kyu), you are bound to know the Japanese have a penchant for logical reasoning and the science of deduction. And Keigo Higashino upholds that cherished tradition with this well-plotted novel.

He excels at creating a mystery which appears complex and unsolvable at the outset, but when it unravels slowly and all the pieces of the puzzle start falling into their place, the solution doesn't baffle one as much as the killer's dedication towards the act of the murder does.

But I have a bone to pick with the translation - it doesn't always do a good job of capturing the true cadences of Japanese speech and the awkward sentence construction often feels jarring.

A significant thing about this book is instead of one detective giving it his all to solve a murder - it gives you 3. Chief detective Kusanagi finds his judgement dangerously clouded by his growing fascination for Ayane. While his assistant Kaoru Utsumi, stubbornly convinced of the fact that Ayane is the killer, seeks out physics professor cum detective extraordinaire, Manabu Yukawa to help her out.

But even while pursuing separate leads, all 3 of them arrive at the same answer.

The characters are not badly sketched caricatures but appear as people who could actually exist. The calmness of Ayane's demeanour even under suspicion, Utsumi's doggedness, Yukawa's brilliance and Kusanagi's quiet dignity shine through.

Kusanagi and Yukawa's friendship, rivalry and the grudging respect they have for each other add another dimension to the story. And it reminds one of the Lestrade and Holmes equation because like Lestrade, Kusanagi is the one getting the credit even though most of the work is done by Yukawa. Although a comparison between Lestrade and Kusanagi won't be fair since the former was essentially a pompous idiot while Kusanagi is balanced and reasonable.

It is also interesting to take note of Kusanagi's growing concern for his own evaluation of the murder and the subsequent investigation - is he being objective or is he being too judgemental? and how does one stop his personal feelings from getting in the way of his professional assessment of a scenario?
Kusanagi's inner turmoil leads him to ponder over what makes a person commit a murder and the effect it has on their personality -

"Kusanagi had met plenty of good, admirable people who'd been turned into murderers quite by circumstance. There was something about them he always seemed to sense, an aura that they shared. Somehow, their trangression freed them from the confines of mortal existence, allowing them to perceive the great truths of the universe. At the same time, it meant they had one foot in forbidden territory. They straddled the line between sanity and madness."

Lastly, this novel also dares to analyze the not-so-flattering shades of a woman's personality and how one woman is sometimes another woman's worst enemy - how an act of betrayal may cause a woman to seek out vengeance with a resolute, perverse passion.

Hence an impressed 3 stars.

I will definitely watch out for Higashino's other works.

P.S:- I apologize for not throwing any light on how the title of the book relates to the murder or the core of the story. But to do that would be to reveal the crux of the story itself, which would be doing the reader a grave injustice.

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