Monday, November 19, 2012

A Cupboard full of coats - Yvette Edwards

A Cupboard full of coats
First Published in: 2011
A first-person narrative of a 30-year old woman who revisits her mother’s murder fourteen years ago through flashbacks and confessions.




Not exactly profane, but does involve some graphic descriptions.

Favorite Quote:
Before delving into the review, I have to admit I was very taken with the title of the book, and more importantly, the relevance of it with the plot. Seldom does one see an appropriately named book. (One flew over the cuckoo’s nest is the other one that immediately comes to mind).

This book tells the story of the murder of a woman about fourteen years back. It is seen through the eyes of her daughter, Jinx, in a series of flashbacks evoked through her conversations with Lemon, one of the three involved in the murder. Living alone, hardened and bitter, these conversations between her and Lemon help bring perspective and eventually a closure to her traumatised past.

First and foremost, this book can make you hungry. Lemon, part-lover and part-father figure, in an effort to unwind Jinx, ends up in the kitchen creating one amazing dish after another. I could taste the pumpkin soup, the millet, the sorrel and the Guinness punch. I could feel myself loosening, and could only nod my head as Jinx articulated what I was thinking:
For a moment, my longing for the breakfast Lemon was cooking so intense, I actually felt afraid.
This book can make you angry - at Jinx for her attitude towards her son; at Lemon for the part he played in the murder; at Barris, the jealous lover of her mother, for his violence and disregard for everyone else; and most of all, at Jinx’s mother, for being so gullible and blind to her daughter’s feelings.

However, the ruling emotion for me after reading this book was an overwhelming sadness. In what I am sure was just meant to be a passing narrative, I found the interaction between Jinx and her son, Ben as the most arresting. It may have something to do with my being a (relatively) new mother; I could strangely empathise with Jinx. But that did not prevent me from getting teary-eyed imagining what Ben must have been going through. All through the narration, I struggled to keep the rejected boy out of my mind.

I am sure that this book will evoke different emotions in different readers. A mother with a healthy relationship with her son will be shocked at Jinx for her damaging attitude towards her son. A daughter who loves her mother could only nod her way through Jinx’s confessions about feeling left out and being angry at the latter’s apparent callousness. But I am sure that everyone would, at least once while reading, want to stop-midway, go to the kitchen and make something delicious.

If the book falls short (and it does, though slightly), it is because of its writing style. I think the author wanted to strike a balance between a simple narration and some dramatic revelations. Yvette Edwards is brilliant as a simple narrator. However, the dramatic revelations, like the names of the protagonist and her mother (which is revealed only in the last chapter and there wasn’t enough punch to warrant that) seemed a tad unnecessary to me.  Then there is the description of emotions, which followed a standard template almost throughout (and sometimes, annoyingly, multiple times in a page):
Cause: Description of the event in one paragraph.
Effect: Description of the resulting emotion in one line.

For instance:
It had been the first time since he’d moved in that she’d spent any time with me on my own, two or three hours on one occasion in nearly two months, that’s all.
 And he was jealous.

Somehow, these one-apparently-loaded line-endings to a paragraph seemed forced, and broke the simple, almost clinical narrative of the book.

The only drawback of the book is so minor that I feel guilty mentioning it here. Indeed, considering the narrative style, the power-packed plot and the delicious cooking, this flaw seems negligible. Though not exactly a fast read, it is a very engrossing one, and can be finished in a couple of sittings. Very strongly recommended for everyone.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Two Fates - Judy Balan

Two Fates
ISBN: 9381626006
First Published In: 2011
A parody of “Two States", this book takes us through an unexpected and funny struggle of a couple to get a divorce.

Words-Wordy, Witty



Favorite Quote:
Sometimes we both cared more for the institute of marriage than we did for each other.

The review has a very high potential to be biased since I am a diligent follower of the author, Judy Balan’s blog. In fact, I came to know about the book through one of her posts; which is as well, for the cover of the book is nothing to write home about. Though I like minimalism/caricatures/ cartoons, this was borderline immature, and not in a good way. The designer seems to have lost interest midway through the rope-loop drawings. The fact that the book is still doing well “despite” a bad cover is a testimonial in itself.
I was however, surprised to find that most reviewers have mis-read(!) the book so thoroughly. Looks like Balan was too, as her post suggests

To summarise: The book is about an IIM-couple Deepika, a Tamilian and Rishabh, a Punjabi. Their families seem to have overcome their basic differences and are bonding well, much to the chagrin of the couple who want to have a divorce. Through London, Scotland, Chennai and Punjab, this incompatible-yet-wanting to be together couple stumble through relatives and various issues leading to a lot of situational comedies and emotional drama.

The book is primarily a parody of the Chetan Bhagat novel, Two States. I can imagine the author rolling her eyes at its corniness, and deciding to write Two Fates just to bring it out in sharp relief. Hence, as a parody, it is bang on. There are a lot of tongue-in-cheek references – to the original book as well to the author. For instance, Balan has coined the term “Gandhi complex” for the male protagonist, defining it as “a delusional condition that the future of the nation rests squarely on his shoulders”. – A not too subtle nod to the lofty ambitions of Bhagat himself.
The coup-de-grace was this exchange between Deepika and Rish:
“Winning is about strategy as much as it is about choice of words”, he gloated. 
“And that’s precisely why I think you’re not meant to be a writer”, I said. He remained silent. 
To me, writing was an art form. It was as much about beauty, form and style as it was about content. But Rish could never get that. For him, the story was everything. 
“If the story is good and the language simple, people will read”, he often said. 
But my point wasn’t about people reading as much as it was creating art. He argued that if I wanted to create art I should paint or write poetry, making me want to shoot him down for landing on my turf and lecturing me on what I was obviously better equipped to do. 
“I am going to make India read” He finally announced getting up from him seat with a dreamy look, as if he were the Mahatma and he had just made up him mind about ahimsa. 
“Drama King”, I said, “You’d do so much better in Bollywood”. 
“Yes maybe, I should make a movie about the fateful day I married you” he said, taking his seat again. 
“You could call it Two Idiots”, I grinned.
Interestingly, though Balan has also done the North-South stereotyping, she has fared much better. While Bhagat could barely conceal his annoyance and bias, Balan worked at creating stereotypes only to contradict them later – be it in repeatedly showing how “simple” South Indians are, only to be followed by the groom’s (south-Indian) mother happily accepting a Honda City, or to Rish and Deepika’s argument on who was more obnoxious - The balance seems equal, and hence, funny.

However, as a standalone book, it did have its drawbacks. The flow was unsure and shaky initially, which progressively improved with the story. The initial attempts at funny one-liners and interesting comebacks seemed a tad disjoint and broke the narration. Admittedly, no fault can be found with the language, which was witty, intelligent and slightly wordy with sporadic doses of swear words.  There were poetic lines like these:
Conning the audience was the aim and the client was the unsuspecting fat cow about to be milked like nobody’s business. So, come hell, high waters, weekends or lunch time – ours was not to reason why; ours was but to write clever headlines and lie.
Or funny ones like these:
Sure, we can’t give our lives for the country, perform open-heart surgery or help prevent global warming. But we know how to make people buy things they don’t want to buy. And that makes us way cooler than everyone else.
There are ample doses of dry humor in these pages, which are guaranteed to bring out a chuckle or two from the reader. Though it shows a lot of promise, for a non-TwoStates reader, I don’t think it is enough to hold fort.

The book is strongly recommended for those who have already read “Two States”. As a parody, it is remarkably funny. As a standalone book though, it fell a bit short. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Two States, The story of my marriage - Chetan Bhagat

Book Title Two States
ISBN: 8129115301
First Published: 2009

The story of a North Indian boy falling for a South Indian girl and his struggles in convincing both sides of the family into accepting this relationship.

Simple, Funny

Romance, Drama

The couples live-in together and have sex before marriage. The language, however, is not very profane.

Favorite Quote:
Forgiving doesn’t make the person who hurt you feel better, it makes you feel better.

Two States is the story of a Punjabi boy and a Tamilian girl falling in love, and instead of taking the usual route of eloping to get married, believe in convincing their parents for their union. The book is funny in a simple sort of a way and packs some lessons too – like being Indian instead of being North or South Indian and the importance of forgiving.

The book can be divided into three sections, and these sections evoked different emotions from me: Tolerant, Incredulous and Annoyed.

The language is juvenile. That in itself is not a reason to dislike a book – I loved the writing style of Twilight, Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. I was not expecting a Salman Rushdie from a Chetan Bhagat. However, when a juvenile style of writing is combined with cheesy lines and shallow emotions, more than losing its edge, the book becomes a caricature of bad writing. Consider, for example, the dedications page:
This may be the first time in the history of books, but here goes: 
Dedicated to My In-Laws.* 
*Which does not mean I am henpecked, under her thumb or not man enough.

Ever since the movie Lives of Others, I give a lot of importance to the Dedications page. Considering that this book is inspired from his own marriage, and also that the book makes ample fun of the in-laws (to be), whose positive traits have been conveniently ignored, I found this page to be a very poor joke.
Or maybe not. I am a Tamilian, and as Bhagat mentions in his book:
The Tamil sense of humor, if any, is really an acquired taste.

The book is full of stereotypes. Punjabi and Tamilian stereotypes to be precise. Of course, Bhagat has added this disclaimer in the beginning:
I would also like to tell all South Indians I love them. My better half will vouch for that. I have taken the liberty to have some fun with you just like I have with Punjabis – only because I see you as my own. You only make digs at people you care for.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the stereotypes now:
  • Primarily concerned about food.
  • Usually on the heavy side.
  • Overdressed and with a preference for bling and gaudy jewellery.
  • Love showing off their wealth.
  • Usually outspoken, loud and dramatic.
  • Believe South Indians have a complexion complex.
  • Love to shop.
  • Education is not exactly a priority, especially for a girl.
  • Love the IIT tag and foreign degrees.
  • Eat only Idlis.
  • Almost all of them are black (not dark), and most of them use generous doses of talcum powder.
  • Listen to horrible Carnatic music.
  • Docile, repressed and the only sign of rebellion is talking in Tamil to non-Tamilians.
  • Tamilian men usually have thick glasses and oiled hair, and since they cannot get girlfriends themselves, prefer arranged marriages.
  • Tamilians don’t like to have fun and like to follow the rules. Fun, for them, is usually associated with guilt.
  • They like reading The Hindu, and are comfortable with silences. The dinner is a quiet affair with everyone exchanging dead looks.

To sum it up:
Marble flooring is to a Punjabi what a foreign degree is to a Tamilian. 
When people land at Chennai airport, they exchange smiles and proceed gently to the car park. At Delhi, there is traffic jam of people trying to hug each other to death.
In the beginning of the book, Bhagat through the protagonist Krish, mentions the following reason for wanting to be a writer:
Someone who tells stories that are fun but bring about change too.
Now, what does the author do to serve the bigger cause – vis-à-vis, make inter - state marriages acceptable?
  • Does he finally understand the city and its people or his girlfriend (or vice versa)? No.
  • Does he show the positives of the stereotyped parents and South-Indian (and North-Indian) bosses? No.
  • Does he show some exceptions to the stereotypes – like an educated Punjabi girl, a non-blingy Punjabi parent, a non-gossipy relative, a cool south Indian friend, a drinking and meat-eating Tamilian? No.
  • Does he lie his way through to the girl’s parents' hearts? Yes.
  • Does he expect the girl to lie to his parents and do the household work to impress his mother? Yes.
  • Does he manipulate the brother, the girl’s parents and his mother into accepting for the marriage? Yes.
  • Despite the lofty talks of wanting to bring about change, and constantly putting down a multinational bank like Citi, does he, in the end, resort to the traditional method of flattery to get his job done? Yes.

After all, in his own words:
No matter how accomplished people get, they don’t stop fishing for compliments.
When the parents of the boy and the girl finally meet, the protagonist tells the girl to make her parents buy a lot of gifts for his mother and not let him pay or do any work. He convinces his mother that the girl will be docile and submissive after marriage. The boy’s only defense is that he was lying and trying to get both the sides to like each other. Of course, how a girl's side will like a boy or his mother for forcing them to buy "gifts" is debatable.
Forget the feminist angle, but this looks like a life full of lies and a lot more gifts from the girl’s parents just to let the parents get along. Again, the ever eloquent author, provides this conversation between the boy and a girl as a gist of the issue: 
Girl: “No I want to marry where my parents are treated as equals”
Boy: “You should have been born a boy”.
Girl: “That’s so sexist, I would have hung up if I didn’t care for you”.
To be fair, the girl ought to be smacked too. She assents to marry the guy who didn’t like her wearing shorts, asked her parents to buy gifts and thinks that only a boy can demand equal rights for parents.  
This is not the first book with a manipulative or a non-likeable protagonist. There is Gone with the wind with a raunchy heroine and Fifty Shades of Grey with a sex-starved lead, not to mention all the unreliable narrators. The reason why this was as glaring as it is was because of the promise that the book is about change. If the change in inter-state marriages can be achieved only through lies and manipulations, then the marriage is not worth it.

It is an easy read - the language is simple and easy to follow. Of course, it is light on the pockets. But please read the book with minimal expectations. Bhagat does not disappoint, at least in terms of mediocre writing and shallowness that is expected out of him.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Fifty Shades Trilogy - E.L.James

Book Title: Fifty Shades Trilogy

ISBN: 0099580578
First Published in: May 2011, September 2011 and 
January 2012 respectively
Synopsis:A fictional insight into a highly successful man’s leanings towards Bondage, Dominance, Sadism and Masochism (BDSM) relationships will all his female counterparts.

Serious, Witty

Romance, Drama

Very adult language.

Favorite Quote:
Fair Point well Made, Ms.Steele.
(Not one of the best lines, but it was used so many times that I couldn’t get it off my head!)

Fifty Shades of Grey is a three-part book into the enigmatic personality of a business tycoon Christian Grey through the eyes of a college graduate, Anastasia Steele. The initially stifling dominant characteristics of Grey are slowly unravelled to show their more turbulent roots. Steele embarks on an unlikely and unexpected journey to discover, and unintentionally, heal him.
There are many drawbacks in the writing, but one cannot fault the story line – it is dark, disturbing and frankly, unforgettable. Depending on one’s perspectives, there are three way of reviewing this book:
  • Twilight fan book
  • BDSM
  • Language.

The Twilight Fan-Book Perspective
As most of the readers know, the story initially started off as a twilight fan fiction, and later spun off to form a standalone series. For those who didn’t (like me), the connection was not difficult to make. I was incredulous while reading it, and was planning on shouting “plagiarised” before I did a Google.
Take this line from "Fifty Shades of Grey" for example:
“…last to be picked for basketball or volleyball – but I understood that – running and doing something else at the same time like bouncing or throwing a ball is not my thing. I am a serious liability in any sporting field. Romantically, though, I’ve never put myself out there, ever. A lifetime of insecurity – I’m too pale, too skinny, too scruffy, uncoordinated, my long list of faults goes on.”
Compare that with this line from Twilight:
“Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete; I didn't have the necessary hand-eye coordination to play sports without humiliating myself — and harming both myself and anyone else who stood too close.”
This is just one example – of one character. To summarise:

Character Comparison - Fifty Shades Trilogy and Twilight Series
Source: ReadingAftermath 

I believe it is a crime to copy “characters” from another book and use similar names (Come on lady, don’t be so lazy!). This is even more disturbing than usual because of the first-person narrative.  
However, by the second and third book, Ana has been given more character. more spunk and definitely, more weaknesses ( She is nagging to the point of being irritating). She is witty, strong-minded, independent and career-focussed, while Bella remained monochromatic – Paranoid and obsessed with Edward.  To put it in perspective, Ana grew while Bella wanted to be “17 forever”.

The BDSM perspective
I didn’t find the book bold, shocking or more erotic than a normal Sidney Sheldon novel. It may have to do with the fact that I skipped a few of the descriptions –when 70% of the first book is on sex, it gets boring – be it for pleasure, for punishment or for teaching.
The book is borderline clinical in the descriptions and James took an interesting approach to introduce the concept novel to most of us – through a detailed agreement document.  Though I couldn't garner enough interest to google some of the terminologies, I found the approach different and informative! 

The language Perspective:
If you can get past the twilight-similarity (and that can ONLY happen if you haven’t read Twilight before) and the BDSM over-load, the language could be a potential deal breaker. James literally ran short of phrases and ended up using the same ones again.. and again. The few I found particularly irritating have been listed below, with the frequency of their usage in all three books (absolute numbers):
Common phrases Used in Fifty Shades Trilogy              
Source: ReadingAftermath

There were many more, but these were all that I could remember of the top of my head.
The language did have a redeeming quality: an almost effortless flow. Though it is no way on par with the breezy style of twilight and Percy Jackson series (I refer only to the style of writing), and though I wish Ana Steele’s vocabulary was not so limited, the punch lines and dialogue deliveries were smooth.

Little credit has been given to the story which packs a solid punch. That is the only way that a novel with so many sex scenes, plagiarised characters and an average style of writing could have such a deep impact. For every reader who is either OK with BDSM or is willing to skip a few pages, this book is strongly recommended.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Playboy's College Fiction - Edited by Alice .K.Turner

A collection of 21 years of Playboy’s College Fiction writers, these short stories span from 1986 to 2006.

Simple, Serious


It Is a Playboy Contest – what do you expect?

Favorite Quote:

Every one of us has a short-story writer inside us. It is, after all, an easy task – we have one episode, few characters and good language to make it work. There are numerous personal blogs dedicated to such stories. Despite the overload , very few stay in mind. Off the top of my head, I can think of the classics like The Lady or the Tiger, The gift of Magi and The Most Dangerous Game, and  the recent ones like Creative Writing published in New Yorker. The line demarcating a standard short story from an unforgettable one is a right mix of innovation and intrigue.
I was not aware that the Playboy Magazine published clean and critically acclaimed fictional stories. I was even more surprised to know that writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Woody Allen have been featured in the magazine at least once. So, when I chanced upon a collection of College fiction Collection, I was very excited and couldn't wait to start. 

The forward of the book reads thus:
Writing a great short story is like telling a good joke at a bar. You have to get in and get out with perfect timing. The least hesitation or nuance in the tone of voice can make the whole thing fall flat, especially if the joke sucks in the first place. There is little room for languorous description in a short story. There is no time for lengthy exposition, no place for detailed background information and digression. The characters may be compelling enough to carry a novel, but in the rigors of the story form the protagonist must be involved in only one perfect, complete episode.
I cannot agree more with that, but I t hink the author missed one word here – One perfect, complete and interesting episode. You can find no fault in the language, sentence formations or even the style of writing – in fact, it is impeccable. One can see that this book houses a set of innovative writers – however, story tellers, they are not.

I could not help but wonder why I could not like the stories, which were, after all, Contest Winners – selected out of 1000 entries. I came up with some theories on that.
  • There were four stories (out of the published twenty-one) which were marginally interesting (“Que Linda Takes the Rite Aid”, “1%”, “Fishboy” and “Gerald’s Monkey”) and all of them are post-1990 entries. It made me wonder if there was a disconnect because the rest were before my time. If that is indeed the case, I will go out on a limb to say that if a story is going to affect only the current generation, then it is not much of a story at all. I am sure that Kalki and Edgar Allan Poe will be read (and re-read) by generations after ours.
  • Being published by Playboy, it may have catered to the guy’s mentality more. Again, I can only scoff at the idea, for though all the stories were filled with testosterone (guns and girls and general stupidity), they were way too flat (for lack of a better term).
  • The final assumption is that considering the contents of the book, the non-exciting and dull narration would have been a welcome change.

The last theory seems plausible, and I can definitely live with that. By all means,  these critically acclaimed stories may make for a good read while leafing through the contents of an adult magazine. As a standalone collection of short stories, however, they are woefully inadequate.

The story lines are innovative and the language is impressive, but the stories themselves are neither interesting nor intriguing.

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s fictional account of a real-life controversial double murder is dotted with passion, dignity and morbidity.

Simple, Serious

Fiction, Non-Fiction

No profanity

Favourite Quote:
Just because a thing has been written down, Sir, does not mean it is God’s truth.

On July 23, 1843, a double murder took place in Canada – of Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper (and mistress) Nancy Montgomery. The murderers were believed to be their employees, Grace Marks and James McDermott.The trial for murder was held in November, 1843, where McDermott was found guilty and was hanged. Grace however got a life sentence due to her age, gender, and her apparent witlessness.Grace was then confined to the penitentiary, and despite some violent behaviour, worked as a trusted servant for the governor. Finally, in 1872, she was granted a pardon to a home provided for her.

Rarely do we read books where the reader is made aware of the sequence of events before dwelling into the details (Chronicles of a death foretold comes to mind). The above story forms the backdrop of Margaret Atwood’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted book “Alias Grace”. After an artful poem summarising the events leading up to the murder, the writer’s story of Grace’s past and present unfolds through a series of conversations between her and Dr. Simon Jordan. Set in 1859, the chapters are introduced with quotes, newspaper articles and expert opinions.  Atwood is clearly sympathetic towards Grace, and one gets a feeling it is because of her assumed “witlessness and weakness of sex”. There are many tongue-in-cheek conversations between the doctor and her , like this for example:
“Then You have given up hope?”
“Hope of what, Sir?” She asked mildly.
Simon felt foolish, as if he’d committed a breach of etiquette.“Well - Hope of being set free.”
 “Now, why would they want to do that, Sir?” She said, “A murderess is not an everyday thing.  As for my hope, I save that for the smaller matters. I live in hopes of having a better breakfast than I had today.”
There are three themes running through the narration – the introduction of the railway lines in Canada, the 1837 Rebellion and Spiritualism.  This motley mix provided a very rich background for the murdered and the murderers:  Grace’s family’s move to Canada for finding work in Railways, Mary Whitney’s pro-democratic thoughts and McDermott’s surly personality due to the after-effects of the rebellion and unravelling the mystery of Grace’s mind through hypnotism.
The book is written in first person narrative from Grace’s point of view and from Simon’s perspective in third-person.  It is unsettling to be inside Grace’s head, and one can immediately gauge that the narrator is unreliable. While talking to Simon, she ends up thinking on how to please him and what he would like to hear, making us unsure on what has been sensationalised by her. There are multiple shades to her personality, as noticed by the courtroom (in reality), by Simon and of course by Grace herself. As she herself admits:
Underneath that is another feeling, a feeling of being wide-eyed awake and watchful. Its like being wakened suddenly in the middle of the night, by a hand over your face, and you sit up with you heart going fast, and no one is there. And underneath that is another feeling still, a feeling like being torn open; not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such, but like a peach and not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting open of its own accord. And inside the peach there’s a stone.
Atwood leaves tantalising hints throughout the book, giving us inkling on where she is planning to take it. The introduction of Mary Whitney (a la Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca), the circumstances surrounding her death and its effect on Grace creates a kaleidoscopic groundwork for what transpired next.
By the end of the book, it is unclear whether Grace was suffering from Amnesia or was a cunning impostor. Her cool attitude after the double murders (she cleans up the house before dressing up in Nancy’s clothes) is complemented by her attitude when she is pardoned. In Grace’s words:
I was rescued, and now I must act like I was rescued. …It calls for a different arrangement of the face, but I suppose it will become easier with time.
It takes a seasoned writer to turn a simple story into a page-turner without introducing cheap-thrills. It takes a good researcher to weave Canada’s past into one of the most controversial murders seamlessly. Finally, it takes a skilled story-teller to create an unreliable protagonist, thus changing the outcome of the novel based on what one believes.

It is a long read, and not a very light one. However, the book is very absorbing and turns out to be engrossing purely because of Margaret Atwood’s writing finesse. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

It's your move, Wordfreak! - Falguni Kothari

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books! 

A blind-date between a couple builds into a passionate romance and meaningful relationship before it gets complicated

Simple, Witty, Funny


Though there is no profanity, there are graphic love-making scenes.

Favorite Quote:

WordFreak, aka Aryan is a successful page-3 architect who is completely smitten when he meets his online scrabble partner, WordDiva (Alisha). Being a divorce lawyer, Alisha is naturally hesitant to jump into a relationship, an online one at that. However, there is a whirlwind of romance and they seem like a couple of puzzle pieces falling in place with family and friends filling the landscape up. Mid-way through the book, the expected twist happens, albeit from unexpected quarters.

It’s your move, Wordfreak!” unintentionally drives home an important point. While a title is not a determinant, it should nevertheless be relevant. The book was marketed with the following tag line – 
What do you get when you mix words and the World Wide Web? –  A Scrabbulous Romance.  
The nerd in me expected a lot of witty one-liners and a war-of-words. However, there is nothing Scrabbulous about it. The book mentions a couple of games between the two (with more focus on their chatting than the game itself), and other than the nicknames, it doesn't play any part in the narration at all. A more appropriate title would have been “Emotional Baggages” or some such.
Dissatisfaction with the title was compounded with an overdose of romantic-novel clichés. The tall, handsome and extremely successful hero, the grounded, practical and sexy heroine, corny lines (After meeting her for the first time, Aryan believes He could move mountains, swim across oceans, leap into the cloudless sky just to see her sweet face and bask in her glory – Seriously?) and the cringe-worthy description of their love making scenes.  The witty dialogues are not so witty, and the funny one-liners seem contrived.

However, where first-time author Falguni Kothari stumbled with the naming and the language, she made up for it through her protagonists and plotting. 
Most of the new authors make a common mistake – they don’t build their characters. Even within a strong plot and superior language, they end up looking like roughly sketched caricatures mouthing the written lines. Kothari's character building is spot-on. All the female characters have been portrayed as strong and independent with a unique personality to match. Though their male counterparts were a tad unrealistic (A man may be able to move mountains, but he cannot change his beliefs in a course of 3 months just because his lover told him to), they are unravelled slowly and systematically. 
Strong characters required a stronger plot, and the author was able to provide it to them. Aryan’s inclination towards environment-friendly construction (loved the tree-house idea!) stuck the green chord in me. However, I wish he had been kept more realistic, and not made out to be a goody-two shoes, by using his money to finance rural projects (Only Margaret Mitchell had the guts to make her primary characters unabashedly selfish and the talent to make them so memorable). The importance given to auxiliary relationships (Uncle-Nephew, Grandmother-Grandson, Mother-Daughter and girlfriends) were heart rendering.

It’s a mixed bag, where the positives manage to outshine the negatives. If you can get past a couple of glitches, the book is an ideal relaxing read for the weekend. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lord Of The Rings: Reviewing the book through the movie

There is LOTR, the movie and then, there is LOTR, the book. The movie will be watched more than once for its out-of-this-world (literally!) visuals, characters and of course, the story. The book will be read more than once for appreciating the beauty of written word, visualising the beautiful parallel universe created, learning some much-needed lessons, and more importantly, for trying to unravel all the riddles, big and small. 
It is very difficult to write a review of the book when the movie was so staggeringly successful -The movie, which did not follow the book to the letter; the movie which, in an attempt at commercial success, decided on compromising on the beauty and the purity of the book. 
Don’t get me wrong. I loved all the three movies – how can one not?! The places were spot on ( Be it the bleak Mordor landscape, the peaceful Shire or the beautiful Rivendell), the characters were almost perfect ( especially Legolas played by Orlando Bloom who still looks like an elf in disguise – I still think Aragorn, Arwen and Frodo could have been cast better) and the visuals were stupendous (how can anyone forget Gollum, the Oliphaunts, Balrog or even the Orcs?). However, the focus of the movie was totally different from that of the book. Through subtle omissions and additions, the feel of the story changed. 
Here are some I could think right off the top of my head:
  • Tom Bombadil’s absence: 
I have to admit that I didn’t particularly take to Tom Bombadil initially. Deep into the forest, in the middle of an unexpected trouble (from the forest itself, not the black riders), we are introduced to this Santa Claus –ish fellow, who can talk to trees and change weather through his singing. On re-reading the chapter however, it was clear that he was here for a purpose – to lighten the mood. We, as readers, had just been introduced to the black riders, and before we could start brooding about it, we are given some nonsensical songs (Hey Dol! Merry Dol! Ring a dong dillo!), and a hope to normalcy. 
  • Characterising Saruman: 
Saruman was made larger than life, almost literally, when the fellowship try to cross the mountains and they hear his voice asking the mountains to not let them pass, making them enter the mines of Moria. The book however, talks about “fell voices”, giving an scary and ghostly feel to the mountains, which were once occupied by evil kings much before Sauron. This simple explanation makes us realise that Sauron was not present since the beginning of time (in this world), and that there could be equally interesting stories in the past.
On hindsight, the book had one drawback which was taken care of by the movie. In the first book, Saruman is present only through Gandalf’s narratives, and even in the second book, he is introduced in person only briefly (One paltry chapter titled “The Voice of Saruman”). At least in this case, I prefer the movie, because we were aware of just how big a threat Saruman really was. 
  • The multi-faceted Merry and Pippin: 
Tolkien characterised (through Gandalf) hobbits thus:
"These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures or tables or the small things… if you encourage them..” 
By the end of the war, Pippin is a knight in Gondor, and Merry is a Swordthain of Rohan. They maintain their titles when they go back home. However, they had trouble waiting in Shire, for, unlike as depicted in the movie, Saruman manages to escape Isengard with Wormtongue, and plans his revenge by occupying shire with orc-like men. The hobbits, led by Merry and Pippin, fight with the men and restore it back to normalcy, while Saruman is killed by Wormtongue.
 It was heartening to read more about Merry and Pippin, even though it involved more fighting and destruction of the beautiful Shire. I’m sure the movie gave an alternate ending to shorten and simplify the story, but it reduced their importance, during and after the war. For despite their levity and silliness, they were brave and successful leaders – quite a rare combination. 
  • The bonding of Legolas and Gimli: 
Tolkien had his best brainwave when he decided to make best friends out of this unlikeliest of pairs. The friendship starts with Legolas defending Gimli to the guards of Lothlorien, and is strengthened through their mutual respect for Galadriel. These two then make a promise to accompany the other in his dream quest – Talking to the trees of Fanghorn for Legolas, and exploring the caves of Helm’s Deep for Gimli. This simple gesture symbolises hope (of returning after the war), forming unlikely bonds (between dwarves and elves), mutual respect despite the differences and changing instincts (Elves don’t like caves, and Dwarves are not comfortable in forests). 
  • Frodo Suspecting Sam: 
I’m still unsure on the primary motive for making Frodo doubt Sam before entering the caves of the giant spider, Shelob – For added dramatics, displaying Frodo’s increasing weakness or for showcasing Ghollum’s wickedness? 
Whatever the case may be, it compromised on the primary characteristic of the Frodo-Sam relationship – their unquestioned trust and affection for each other. It was heartening to know that neither Ghollum nor a ring could destroy something as simple and strong as that. 

  • Aragorn and Arwen’s romance: 
Maybe the romantic in me should have rejoiced on the extra screen time given for a couple which had almost no page-time. The chase sequence of Arwen with Frodo, though beautifully shot (that’s an understatement) still overshadowed the truth, where Frodo faced the black riders alone. Elrond opposing the marriage and Arwen dreaming about Aragorn with her son were borderline crazy. We get the briefest of glimpses on this relationship through a curious conversation between Aragorn and Galadriel (who was also Arwen’s grandmother). 
If a romance angle was indeed necessary, I wish the movie had focussed more on Faramir-Eowyn and Sam-Rose – the only two proposals in the book.  

  • The story of the Ents: 
Ents are Fascinating creatures, not because of their strength, but because of their passion. For example, with Ents loving the wild life, and Ent wives preferring the shrubs and gardens, the two got separated (Read this beautiful song written as a conversation between an Ent and an Entwife). When Merry and Pippin leave for Shire, Treebeard asks them to keep a look out for Entwives. This simple and heartfelt request makes us realise that the ring and Sauron were not a priority for him. The Ents were hoping for their happy ending – with or without Sauron in power. 

  • House of Healing: 
I was always surprised that Aragorn was accepted so unanimously by the people of Gondor. The truth, however, is slightly more complicated. They may have expected him as the king, but Aragorn was not ready to enter the city until he could prove his worth. And prove he did – by bringing the almost-dead back to life. Faramir, Eowyn and Merry were gravely ill when the healer mentions the prophecy that “the hands of the king are the hands of the healer”. Aragorn is thus summoned, who heals them back to life. 
A small scene maybe, but it potentially helped build Aragorn’s character. He was strong and brave indeed, but more importantly, he was compassionate, making him the perfect “king who returned”. 

  • The lack of music: 
The movie rang with the sounds of war and orcs. The pages of the book, on the other hand, swayed to the music of the songs of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Bilbo, Legolas and Aragorn. There are silly verses, love stories, and historical events in these songs which are a joy to the senses. 

It is clear that Tolkien wanted the wars to form a tumultuous background and nothing more. Indeed, even the one at Helm’s Deep is only 9 pages long, while the attack of orcs just before the fellowship is broken is not described at all. This book is more about the triumph of goodness over evil, where the goodness is not expressed in terms of skills (like Gimli’s axe or Legolas’ Bow), but in terms of the purity of spirit. 
The winning characteristic of the book, though subtle, is how there is a hint of more. While the story of the ring is undoubtedly fascinating, one gets a feeling that in the history of this world, it is not the most intriguing one. I, for one, would be very interested to know if the Ents finally found their Entwives, how Gandalf got the third elf ring (If you didn’t already know that, gotcha!) and who exactly was Tom Bombadil. 
Like Tolkien says, the only major flaw with Lord of the Rings was that it got over too soon.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Scammed - Anonymous

The story of an accountant-turned CEO, whose successful career is abruptly halted when he finds himself in the middle of an elaborate financial scam.

Simple, Serious


No profanity

Favorite Quote:

Most of the new authors specialising in short stories have a unique writing style – Simple and to the point, focussing on the telling of the story, rather than how it is told. I guess the idea is to hold the fluctuating attention of the reader. “Scammed” falls in that category. It gives a bird’s eye-view of the characters and the plot, so much so that it makes one wonder how much better the book would have been had the author put more meat into it.

Hitesh Shah is a hard working consultant who, despite deserving, is not recommended for a promotion, while his better-at-networking-peer has quickly moved up the ladder. Most of us can see ourselves in Hitesh – the high-life seeking, hot-girlfriend wanting middle-class Indian, who is constantly nagged by his parents. When he does attract the interests of a struggling model, he is ecstatic. She however, “wants to feel pampered”, and Maruti Altos, cheap-flights and budget deals are definitely not enough. That, more than anything else, nudges Shah towards signing up an exciting offer put forward by the head of an auto company – to start and be the CEO of a car-rental company. Knowing well that the new company was created to save the parent company from trouble, he uses all his acumen to turn both the companies’ fortunes around. While he succeeds, the ex-employees of the auto company, angry at being “wronged” by Hitesh, plan and execute their revenge. Hitesh, now on the run, gets help from unexpected quarters, and as happy endings go, is finally able to redeem himself.

The sub-title of the book reads “Confessions of a Confused Accountant”. However, there is nothing confusing about Shah’s actions. Contrary to what it seems, the protagonist has the strength typical of an ethical middle-class man – to not give in to pressure, and to believe that hard work is more important than networking or dressing up (not an entirely correct thought though). Apart from the protagonist, however, it is difficult to get into the skin of the rest of the characters. The parents are portrayed as “forever nagging”, the female colleague as “manipulative”, and girlfriend as “running after the money, and using him”. Though these simple and monochromatic versions of the sidekicks helped move the story in a single track and at a sharp pace, it left a lot more to be desired.
The author has written the book on the presumption that the reader is a common man, and hence, has simplified and gone easy on the jargons. Coming from a non-financial background I found that to be a positive thing. I am not sure how the rest feel about that.

Between pace and meat, the author has chosen the former. The author’s intentions are clear - he had an interesting and a complicated plot which he wanted to put across to a common (wo)man. Thus, he succeeded in writing a fast-paced short-story by skimming over the surface of what can only be assumed to be deeper turmoil of emotions. Though ideal for a light read, I hesitate to recommend it.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Calendar Too Crowded - Sagarika Chakraborty

A Collection of short stories and poems around the theme of womanhood categorised month-wise.

Simple, Serious


No profanity

Favorite Quote:

Let me start off by saying that I am not a feminist. I have been treated as an equal (if not better) to all my male counterparts at every stage of life and hence haven’t had a reason strong enough to become one. I enjoy taking up the “traditional womanly” roles that the society designates, and am proud to do it well.
But that was not the only cause for my disconnect with this book. While the inequality harping got on my nerves, my primary issue was with the style of writing. Though I look forward to discovering an author’s voice in every book, I wish Sagarika had toned down the annoying one she has shown here – primarily in first person and a tendency to repeat a line or a phrase at the end of every para . She had a great concept – that of categorising the stories by months. I wish she had exploited that and experimented with the style of writing too.
I was ready to give up after three stories. It promised to be a dull, half-baked and poorly researched collection. Grammatical errors only made it worse. The prime example is the very first story, “The gift called ‘Life’”, where the author has written a first-person account of a girl soul narrating her life. Unfortunately, the story is a confused mix of past, present and future tenses. Even if one can get past that, the story focusses on how a blame game is played with a girl child (because of her gender) and some of her gripes are just bizarre. As an example, consider the following line from the story:
“At the age of twenty-six, it was all my fault that many a worthy suitor refused to marry me because of my bohemian lifestyle and because I occasionally smoked.”
Gender has nothing to do with it, but if it is not “all her fault” for smoking, whose fault is it?

The second story was even more incredulous – this time taking stock of a traditional mother of a toddler through the eyes of a pregnant woman. The latter finds fault with the former carrying his bag, holding an umbrella over his head, fanning him, eating late, giving him the ‘good grapes’, letting the son litter the house or waste water, spoon-feeding him, dancing to Bollywood songs, and what not. I have a one year old whose idea of waking me up is to hit me squarely in the eye. Does this mean that he doesn’t “care” for me? It is surprising that she decided to whine about a ten-year old’s behaviour towards his mother (and vice versa), whose understanding of respect or responsibility is sketchy at best. If, however, she had increased the son’s age by fifteen more years, it would have been hard hitting. I wish Sagarika had researched more this subject, or refrained from writing on one she had no experience in. It is easier being a theoretical mother than a practical one.

It is a shame that the first two stories of the book were so poorly constructed, for the rest of the stories are not half bad. The author’s disconnected style of writing did not leave room to form any . However, the topics, the categorisation and in very few cases, the stories make for an interesting reading.
“A life in my Mind”, for example, is the story of a single mother who, through the course of her thought process, starts wondering if she and her daughter are missing a male figure in their lives. The approach was believable and honest instead of preachy, and that was a welcome change.
The poem, “Behind the Whispers”, is very well written. Though rhyming, minimal creative liberties have been taken and the message is well-conveyed. The prose-cum-poem “Of Jatakarmas and Stana Pradhidhanas” is written in a clean and crisp style comparing the lives of a rich and a poor working women and showing the lack of a maternity and child support in both the cases. I was dreading that the author would end up showing how a poorer woman could be a better mother than a richer one, but am glad that she didn’t take the usual route to drive home a very strong point.
“Selling a Body to Gain a Mind” is a unique take on prostitute’s children (though I wish Sagarika had made the child of the prostitute a boy instead of a girl), and could be termed as the most touching story in this collection. “Knowledge beyond the printed letters”, though inspiring, bordered on describing the ideal and non-existent woman. The last story “The gift called nationality”, though interesting in terms of the topic and the approach, falls flat because of the way it is written.

Any feminist would lap it up. It shows how amazing women are and how poorly they are treated by society, parents, in-laws, husbands and random people walking on the road. For a non-feminist (like me) and for men, the negatives are many. However, despite poor research, bad editing and grammatical mistakes, some do make one think – if not about women, then definitely about adoption, single motherhood, respecting prostitutes and saving for old age. Just for that, this book should be given a chance.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!