Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Christmas Train

The Christmas TrainThe Christmas Train
  - David Baldacci

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up one of the RD condensed books at the a used-book sale last year. I didn't own any, they are beautiful books, and I think their editors manage to do a decent job. That was how I had first read 'Guernsey Literary Society', well before I joined an online reading group, and before it became such a rage there - I loved it well enough to buy the original book, and loved it too.

One of the novels in this edition was 'The Christmas Train' by David Baldacci. I have never read any of his works, though I wanted to, since he has been recommended to me as a new age thriller writer.
I understand that a condensed version cannot capture fully the essence of the original; even so, I didn't like this book too much. (That is the reason I mentioned earlier that I have thoroughly enjoyed some works in these editions). First of all, I expected it to be a thriller, perhaps something like 'The Oriental Express', but it turned out to be more of the cheesy romcoms HBO and other channels air around the year-end holidays. And of course, nearly all of the characters were terribly stereotyped. Bypassing that, one major flaw in the story line was that the character of Eleanor, the female protagonist, did not make any sense. The book ended with an entertaining twist, but that also left quite a few bewildered questions.


* SPOILERS *
The biggest issue I had with this book was with Eleanor. She was a war zone journalist, with the ability and passion for the work. While I can understand that the stress can reach a breaking point, it didn't sit well with the character that she just wanted to get married, live in a mansion complete with a picket fence, and have a husband with a 9-to-5 job! And she, who claimed to have taught Langdon all about skiing, cannot make it to the resort on her own - because I suppose the author had to have this damsel-in-distress-rescued-by-the-knight angle to make it a cheesy holiday fare. That is something I have come to detest - authors would start writing a spirited, inspiring female character, and then will develop cold feet and reduce her to a delicate creature that needs to be saved by the hero.

The other stereotypes (and the whole cast is full of them actually) notably include Tom Langdon (the broken hero, who is too dense to understand or respect the women in his life), Max (the rich producer with a heart of gold), Agnes (elderly black lady who is like a 24-carat diamond), and so on. Once you accept the book as the quintessential holiday romance, the cliches don't seem so bad, but I still had trouble believing that Lelia would give up on whatever love she had for Tom, only because Max asked her for a favor.

* END SPOILERS *

The Sunday Philosophy Club

The Sunday Philosophy ClubThe Sunday Philosophy Club
  - Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have read few books from Alexander McCall Smith's "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series. I loved the first two, but after that it was kind of roller coaster due to numerous repetitions and extremely simplistic mysteries, but astute observations and heart-warming outlook. I found about the Isabel Dalhousie series on goodreads, and happened to read the first chapter in one of the Ladies Detective Agency books, which seemed to be a good opening for a murder mystery. So I hoped that it will be engaging, or at least entertaining.

The book starts with the death of a young man after a fall from the upper sections of a theater, where Isabel was also present, watching the performance. Against the advice of her friends and family, who recommend her not to get involved, she is determined to get to the truth of the matter. The mystery part of it is much more interesting compared to the Detective Agency series - there is actually a decent mystery, complete with shady characters, even though I had suspected who the murderer may be quite early on (even if the characters in the book may not be sure, the readers know that it was indeed a murder - why else would the book exist :D). There were a couple of surprising turns in the story, which is the point of any interest it could generate.

Isabel is an editor of a philosophy magazine, and the member of a philosophy club of the title (though it never meets through out the book), so the book has quite a lot of philosophical thoughts attributed to Isabel, and excerpts of essays submitted for the journal. I found them interesting initially, but as they kept on getting lengthier and more abstract; it became boring and I kept skipping these more and more as the book progressed.

I couldn't connect to any of the characters, and if you can't like the protagonist in this kind of a book, there isn't much of a joy left in reading the book. If I look at the other series, Mma Ramotswe is a little flawed, but endearing lady with lots of wisdom and compassion, and a purpose in life. In contrast, Isabel comes across as a rich, somewhat shallow person just meandering through. She is considerably wealthy, and her job as an editor of an obscure journal is little more than a way of occupying her idle time. She is stated as being 42 years old, but I found her to be much more juvenile, in her responses and actions. Her niece Cat shows somewhat more initiative by using her money to follow her passion and open a bakery (which I presume isn't doing bad), but doesn't show much common sense. Jamie is a likeable friend, but unremarkable for his role in the story.


*BEGIN SPOILER*
The book had a few dead-ends, which if developed, could have introduced some tension to add an interest in the narrative. Eg, the inspector at the initial scene of death/murder, the nasty journalist, the rich and presumably unprincipled banker (Minty).
*END SPOILER*
 

I may not exactly be a fan of the Ladies Detective Agency, but I may still read some of that series here and there, because I find it enriching in some way - it is set in cultural environment I haven't read much about, and demonstrates the charming and selfless ways of common people. But I wouldn't read more of Isabel - the privileged lives of English elite is nothing new to read about, the characters were insipid, the philosophical ramblings were annoying and the mystery wasn't exceptional to make it worthwhile to bear the rest.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

The Black Opal

The Black OpalThe Black Opal
  - Victoria Holt

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

There are some childhood favorites that you can read over and over again, and then are some that are a big letdown when you revisit them as an adult. This second case has sadly been my experience with Victoria Holt. Though I wasn’t exactly a child when I got introduced to her - I was in the later years of school, and read a few of her books after a few years, while in college. I just loved her books then - they weren't typical romance, I found them more of historical fiction and thrilling mystery. I particularly remember 'The Shivering Sands', and 'The Night of the Seventh Moon', which sent a chill down my spine. Told in first person, creating an atmosphere of mystery and foreboding, and typically set in the houses of nobility, they were a combination of charm and thrill.

In last 3 years, I revisited the author and read two of her books. 'Seven for a secret' was such a disappointment, but after some discussion, I put it down to the book. I made another attempt with 'The Black Opal' this weekend. It was fairly enjoyable, and a good way to pass time on an idle weekend, but didn't revive my earlier experience with the author's works.

The premise of the story (without spoilers) is this - it tells us (in first person) the story of Carmel, who is found as a newborn in the garden of a relatively wealthy family. She is suspected of having gypsy parentage, but to the surprise and chagrin of the nanny, is taken in by the family, and put in the nursery with the children. Here, the nanny is mean to her, the lady of the house ignores her, the father doesn't take much notice though displays kindness. Nanny's assistant loves her, children are usually friendly, and later a new governess comes in, who is very kind and affectionate to the children. Then a tragedy befalls the family, and Carmel goes off to Australia for next few years. Upon her return, she learns of the facts behind the tragedy which had been hidden from her all these years. The truth, and closure, is what she seeks.

It works alright as a story, even though not quite believable, with several coincidences helping it along. Description of life in Australia was warm and interesting. What doesn't work is the mystery part of it. I could spot most of the twists well before the author pitched them in. I also didn't quite like the writing style - almost entire first half is narrated from the viewpoint of Carmel when she was a child. But it is the adult Carmel who is narrating it, and hence the juvenile voice it is told in, feels quite jarring. During the first half of the book, she mentions a sense of foreboding so many times (and with nothing significant happening after most of them), that they ceased to create any sort of tension after a while. Overall, things seemed to be very simple, almost superficial.

*** SPOILER ALERT
Some examples of the surprises which were quite evident before the author revealed them ...

The typical Victoria Holt hero is rich, titled and mysterious. Hence, when Lucian is introduced in the beginning, and shows considerable kindness towards Carmel, I knew that he is the one that Carmel is going to end up with, other suitors notwithstanding. As the Holt hero, he needs to be enveloped in an aura of mystery and false perception, in comes the completely unnecessary angle of his failed marriage, a dead wife and a young child who he doesn't care for. Also as the typical hero, he could have done no wrong, so it turns out that he is the one who has been wronged!

When Zingara made her first appearance and met Carmel, it was evident to the readers that she was her mother.

Also, when Toby mentioned that Dr Martine was not expected to live long, and avoided details, it became clear that he had received a death penalty for murdering his wife.

*** SPOILERS END

 
So here I am, wondering whether due to an unfortunate coincidence I got hold of her lesser works, or have I become a more mature and discerning reader. When I first read her books, other than children’s books, the only books for adults I had read were Sherlock Homes, H. G. Wells, and a little of Agatha Christie. Since I was young and had little exposure, I may not have seen through plot holes, and definitely wouldn’t have had the experience to contemplate the style. The next time I read her, I had gone through Gardner, MacLean, Bagley, Forsyth etc., but she still held an allure. For more than 15 years I had been trying to find her books, and now that I have done a couple, I am not sure I want to read her any more.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

The Boy in the Striped PyjamasThe Boy in the Striped Pyjamas 
  - John Boyne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a kind of divided opinion about this one. I had expected it to be an emotionally distressing book, given the subject matter. However, it was a quick, easy read, until the last chapter, which was heartbreaking. This book is refreshingly different as it tells the story from the perspective of a German boy, who is brought up in a very protective manner by his parents, and is therefore unaware of the brutal reality of the persecution of the Jews. It targets the young-adult readers, and hence presents a simplistic view (too simplistic, some may say, but I will come back to it later).

I haven’t exactly researched the subject of holocaust, but I have read enough of true life stories (mostly in Readers’ Digest magazine) and a few books (eg Anne Frank’s Diary), to be aware of the stark horror of the Nazi concentration camps. Since I haven’t myself looked into the details, I am willing to accept other reviewers’ assertion (since they sound logical, and some of them were themselves survivors) that the book has great loopholes in its description of concentration camps. However, I am also willing to overlook this aspect as a plot device used by the author.

But there are other incongruities that are not so easy to overlook. The boy’s ignorance about the realities of the camp can be accepted because children believe their parents to be right, powerful and kind, and their parents may have wanted to shield them from the truth. But it is incomprehensible that a 9-year-old German boy, whose father is a high ranking officer in Hitler’s army, will not know that there exist people called ‘Jews’, and moreover, continue to insist on mispronouncing the title of the leader. I believe, a high ranking father or not, it would be an unpardonable offense if the boy had been heard calling Fuhrer as Fury. I fact, I did not understand the logic behind this – why does the author keep using ‘Fury’ and ‘Out-with’ (Auschwitz) until the very end. If he intended to introduce the subject to young readers, he should have used the correct names, at least after one or two corrections.

Which brings me to the simplistic approach taken by the book, raising the question - who is this really aimed at? Since everything is indirectly alluded to, a teenager (or anyone else) who is not already aware of the horrors, can’t make out what is really taking place. It takes someone who knows a bit about the history to understand it, but then, what is the point of reading this book? 

It’s not to say I did not like the book. I liked it for the sensitive portrayal, a different perspective, and for an endearing yet heartbreaking story. But I didn’t find it an extraordinary book to recommend as a must-read.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

In the Convent of Little Flowers

In the Convent of Little FlowersIn the Convent of Little Flowers
  - Indu Sundaresan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I just loved the first two books of the Taj trilogy. I didn't get around to reading the third, because it is in some sense not the continuation of the first two books, and I had quite enough of Mughal history at that time, and then just never got back to it. I also liked her story-telling in 'The Mountain of Fire', even though the book didn’t work as a whole. So, when I first came across her collection of stories - In the Convent of Little Flowers - with a beautiful cover, an intriguing title and interesting blurb, it promptly went on my TBR. So it is that I had been wanting to read it for a long time, and had very high expectations from it. But it wasn’t available in India, and the import fee jacked up the price so high that I didn’t feel justified in ordering it when I had a lot of other interesting stuff to read.

Well, I am just glad that I didn’t spend all that money on it. It took me a long time to finish, almost giving me a reader’s block. Apart from the fact that in last few months I have been spending most of my spare time in my other passion (namely, art), I read only one book at a time, and very rarely abandon one in the middle. I wanted to finish it, and yet couldn’t summon enough enthusiasm to finish.

The book just didn't work for me. Apart from the fact that the tone of all the stories is melancholy and depressing (even when there is a slight gleam of hope), I didn't really find a fresh perspective in most of the stories. For example, two of the stories deal with children’s’ mistreatment of elderly parents, and subjecting them to not just neglect, but criminal abuse. Now, how many stories and movies on this theme have you come across? Same is the case with the stories about unwed mothers or a purported NRI duping a girl’s family for dowry; even the one about wife-swapping is nothing new. Having grown up in small-town India in the 70s and 80s, and having read hindi literature (and translations of other regional works) and hindi magazines of that era, most of the themes were very familiar, and at least I did not find any new insights into the situations either. Overall, a big disappointment from the work of an author whose earlier works I admired. I would have rated it at one star for the content, I added one for the wonderful imagery of the setting she has painted in many of the stories.

Works such as these by NRI authors, sometimes make me wonder about their target audience. Are they trying to tell a story with universal appeal? Or are they targeting Indian diaspora overseas to make them feel nostalgic (if so, I don’t think it works very well, as for me, the feeling it most invoked was of negativity). Or are they targeting the western population, who commonly perceive India as an exotic and yet backward country, and reaffirming their belief by perpetuating the stereotyped ideas?

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets SocietyDead Poets Society
  - N.H. Kleinbaum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love reading books about books or reading. Though this one was more about poetry, I felt this would be right up my alley as I like to read poetry too (but more of Hindi/Urdu rather than English). However, as it turns out, I must be one of the rare few who did not find this an exceptional story.

The premise is simple – in the strictly goal-oriented system of a residential school, students feel stifled, as their teacher and parents push them to ‘achieve’ what they consider as success. To this rigid, suffocating system, the new English professor, John Keating, brings a radical way of thinking. It is a welcome change for students (or at least some of them), though not everyone views it in a positive light. As the students discover the beauty of language and poetry, they also find a brief interlude where they can dare to dream.

I loved the character of Keating, and the way he enables the students to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of literature. I could also identify with the plight of students, as children having to bear the burden of parents’ expectations is something very relatable in our cultural context. Parents and school management have been stereotyped, though that is essential to the storyline. I liked some of the quoted poetry quite a bit, especially the lines composed by the character of Todd (which I assume, would be the author’s own creation).

Yet, it did not work for me as well as I had anticipated. The plot was quite simple, to the point of being predictable. A good narration could have made up for it, but the storytelling was quite average as well. I felt it skimmed on the surface, and only a couple of characters were developed well enough to engage the reader. The biggest downside was the romantic subplot, which I feel does nothing but glorify stalking.

Of late, I haven’t been able to enjoy several books as much as I hope to, and I am not quite able to put a finger on the reason for this. It may be that the level of expectation is too high, buoyed by the glowing recommendations I see for the book. Or the fact that I still am not able to really enjoy reading on Kindle. Or the book genuinely didn’t appeal to me. I definitely expected to feel more deeply about this one. Altogether, a quick, easy read, I would rate somewhere between 2.5 and 3.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Firefly Lane

Firefly Lane (Firefly Lane, #1)Firefly Lane 
  - Kristin Hannah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah after seeing a number of recommendations for this book, and 'The Nightingale', also written by her, on the SRR group and on Goodreads. It is the kind of book that I love – it takes us on a journey with two girls, who strike an unlikely friendship in their childhood, and stay best friends through the decades and various stages of their lives, and through all the ups and downs of the life and friendship. One thing I would say about it is – it’s very well written and I couldn’t put it down, due to or despite the feeling it evoked in me.

It started wonderfully well, when Tully and Kate meet each other at the tender and turbulent age of 14 – as different in their personalities and family background, as they could be. The only thing that they have in common is their feeling of isolation. It portrays the desperation of the two girls in a beautiful manner, that is almost heart-breaking. I also loved the way it captures their relationship with their respective mothers, and the impact it has on their outlook and life, more so in case of Tully.

However, as the book progressed, I kept getting more and more annoyed by the story, as well as the narration. In the beginning, the details of Tully's appearance were relevant, as they highlighted the difference between her and Kate. But when she is becoming or, has become, a smashing success, and the author insists on giving us details of her designer dresses and fancy cars every single time she makes an appearance, it gets irritating and irrelevant. Over the time, the author has both the lead characters settled into stereotypes - Tully is a star, an achiever, while Kate is overwhelmed by her domestic duties (which, incidentally, she brings upon herself by volunteering for every single event that happens at kids’ school and her social circle). By the 3/4th mark, they became so one-dimensional that I couldn’t like either of them much any longer. At this point I was almost on the verge of abandoning it - the book is too big (almost 480 pages) – for the story. It would have been better to avoid the pointless, repeated descriptions of Tully’s dresses and parties and even success stories, and make the book leaner without losing on the story.

But my biggest peeve is the way it undermines women, and in the very clich├ęd manner. Through her characters, the author keeps stating that in this age, women can have everything they want, be whoever they want to be. But, with her story, she just goes on to emphasize the opposite - women can't really have everything. Tully, the ambitious one, sacrificed love for her career, and in the middle age, starts feeling lonely and regrets her choices. Kate, whose ideal was domestic bliss, is tired and depressed, and regrets not having an identity of her own. Both suffer a feeling of loss, and of course, each is somewhat jealous of the other (though that doesn’t affect their love for each other).

Towards the end, it redeemed itself, by showing Kate’s troubled relationship with her teenage daughter, and demonstrating the way life comes a full circle. This part of the story, was rather predictable, but it was so heart-wrenching that I couldn’t dislike it. I cried through the last few chapters (glad I was alone at home at the time :D), and it left me exhausted.

All through the book, I couldn’t help comparing it to Beaches (by Iris Rainer Dart), and not just because of the theme of an enduring friendship between two girls. After finishing this, I strongly feel that the story line bears a lot of similarity, and I may go so far as to call it a more sophisticated or sanitized version of Beaches

Monday, December 03, 2018

Carthick's Unfairy Tales

Carthick's Unfairy TalesCarthick's Unfairy Tales 
  - T F Carthick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came to know about this book from SRR (the virtual reading group I am a member of), where it was lauded with rave reviews.

As the title indicates, this is a collection of stories – retellings of popular fairy tales, but with a different take. Some have a twist from the usual narrative, while others are told from a different PoV. One or two are in the lighter vein, and all of them are thought-provoking. The different perspectives that the author has presented are fascinating, and often make you think whether justice was really served in the popular versions we have grown up hearing (my take – ‘Unfairy’ could refer to the unfair world we live in, or the picture that has been painted for us all these years).

Another delightful thing about the book is the literary references and puns used throughout the stories, specifically the titles, e.g., the first story is titled ‘Of Mice and Horses’ (and it is a take on the story of Cinderella). The subtle humor and satire keeps one amused, even at the points of philosophical musings.

What could be improved, I think, is the style of language (for want of a better word). Sometimes the sentence structure reminds me of the style of O. Henry – formal and descriptive and witty, all at the same time. At others, the style is more crisp and contemporary. The switch was a bit disconcerting, and it may be smoother if a story follows a consistency in style (my personal preference is for the old world charm of O. Henry).

It is great to see young Indian authors coming up with such experiments, and with wonderful results. I feel that these are the kind of stories that will appeal to a very wide range of readers, beyond the barriers of age, gender or which part of the world you live in. I loved it, and recommend it highly, though I think young (pre-teen) readers will not be able to appreciate all the points the author has put forward.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Mini Reviews - VI

Another installment in the series of mini reviews :D

Cheaper by the dozen -  Frank B. Gilbreth Jr 
This is a collection of hilarious anecdotes that arise when a pair of efficiency expert parents have a dozen kids in the family. It also gives a glimpse into the life of a reasonably well-to-do family of the time, when being a successful entrepreneur did not mean mindless luxury and spoiled children, instead, having educated parents meant a focus on learning, and success meant instilling a respect for hard work in the next generation.

It was an absolute delight to get to know the charming, quirky and lovable Mr Gilbreth through the eyes of his children. Few days of my commute were spent silently chuckling over their adventures and misadventures, as I was reading it on my daily commute to work.

 
Sleeper and the Spindle - Neil Gaiman 
This is really just a story, it turned out to be much shorter than I expected. The book is beautifully designed, and the illustrations are simply gorgeous. However, the story itself didn't impress me that much. It is a different take on two conventional fairy tales, but it didn't go into any details to give a better insight into the characters. I was also not quite clear about what had changed after nearly hundred years to cause the sudden panic. I'd give it 3.5 stars, including some extra for the beautiful art.


Partisans - Alistair MacLean 
Not one of the best of MacLean, not even close. I used to love action/spy thrillers in early youth, and loved MacLean, and read many of them several times over. This was one of the 2 or 3 I had not yet read. It is possible that I could have outgrown them (though I really dont think so), or it is entirely possible that it just doesn't make the mark.

This is a very linear story, almost dull. The protagonist really faces no kind of challenge or conflict, that mark his most engaging works, where the hero needs to use his wits and strength to overcome impossible situations. The plot was kind of predictable, and the hero achieves his aim without much of a struggle.

For me, the only thing I loved about this book was the beautiful hardback I could buy from a used-book sale. I had never seen a hardback of the thrillers of this era, and this one has lovely thick pages and wonderful print (the kind of which we dont get to see anymore).

The Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street

The Criminal Mastermind of Baker StreetThe Criminal Mastermind of Baker Street 
 - Rob Nunn

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had somehow stumbled upon this book on Goodreads, perhaps while looking over some of the other Holmes pastiche works that I have been wanting to read. [Confession - Pastiche is a new word I learnt recently, and am having fun using it :D]. There was a preview available, and it aroused my curiosity and interest. This had been on my wishlist since then, but has always been hard to find, or quite expensive. A few months ago I got a kindle, and recently got a ebook of this one, allowing me to delve into it.

Sorry to say that, belying the GR reviews, and the promise offered by the preview, it did not live up to the expectation. I felt that it is essentially a retelling of the original (or canon, as they are fond of calling it in the pastiche universe), though in a less engaging manner. It hardly adds anything new, with the exception of a few minor twists here and there. The author keeps on telling us what a criminal-par-excellence Holmes is, achieving this daredevil heist or that complicated disappearance or what sweet revenge on his enemies; but how these were achieved, we have no clue. The employment of Sherlockian “methods” (you know my methods, Watson!), that was the USP of the canon, is deplorably missing. The only cases where we get to see some detail of the execution are the ones which are taken from the canon. It was also annoying to read Holmes, and to some extent Watson, continually refer to themselves as great criminals; I don’t think I have come across any work of fiction – book or movie – where even the vilest criminals do so. The author also brought in references to a number of things, for example, Jack the Ripper, around which there was no story, making me wonder about the purpose of doing so. There were also some inconsistencies or contradictions, which though a little jarring, could be overlooked; but it would have been better to avoid them altogether.