Friday, 13 July 2018

Home Fire - Kamila Shamsie

bloomsbury.com

It is said that art reflects society. Well this book is a perfect example of it. We live in a turbulent age when the question of identity and loyalty depends on our origins and this book is a great reflection of that. It is great to see a topical issue that has been raging for a while to be documented and immortalised in literature.

When the issue of Isis and jihadis first came up, there were documentaries and talks held as to the why and how. This book gives a great insight into the issue, what happens when the radicals and government clash in the face of religious ideologies and how individual is caught in the middle.

The book is loosely based on the Greek play Antigone. However it has been placed in a such a contemporary context. It is at once explosive and yet poignant in its treatment of the subject.

It is no wonder that Shamsie won the Bailey's prize in Fiction and made it to the Booker longlist. Also uncanny is her prediction of a Muslim Home secretary which turned out to be true in real life. 

Gist:

Isma after years of shouldering the responsibility of her twin siblings Aneeka and Pervaiz, is now free to forage her own path. She is leaving for the US to do a doctrate in Sociology. She meets Eamon a handsome Muslim young man, who is everything she is not and falls for him. 

While she is away, her home is falling apart. Her brother has gone off to join the Isis media section and her sister is not talking to her.  Aneeka is very close to her brother and is determined to bring him back. The only problem is she needs the government to be on her side, seek help from the Muslim Home Secretary, Karamat Lone who is against the family, a hardliner. 

What works:
  • The writing style is unique. It moves in a linear fashion. But we are given scenes in which we figure how the story has progressed and the direction it takes.
  • The opening scene of Isma at the US immigration interrogation is such a powerful one. It hits the reader in the face and is a great insight into what it is like to have a Muslim name in the foreign world.
  • The characters are so good, it is very easy to identify with them to see how it must have been for them.
  • Karamat Lone is such a great character. Loved the way she portrays his Englishness and his Muslim identity. She captures the essence of him so well.
What doesn't:
  • The writing needs a bit getting used to. The writer plunges the reader directly into the story, throwing into scenes allowing the reader to work her way through. It demands a bit from the reader and reluctant readers may struggle a bit with it.
The book is one of those rare literary novels that reads like a thriller appealing to the mass while siding along with highbrow literature. That for me, was the best part. Making literature accessible to more people instead of just shutting them off with hard to follow writing style.

Easily one of my top reads of 2018. If you want to know what makes a really good novel is, look no further.







Sunday, 24 June 2018

A Necessary Evil - Abir Mukherjee

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
A well plotted story about Maharajas and their lives.

If the first book is a daring debut, Mukherjee ups the game with yet another classy plot and narrative. This time he decides to leave the dusty lanes of Calcutta and takes the action to the exotic and mysterious princely Kingdom of Sambalpore in Orissa.

Gist:

Mukherjee and Sergeant "Surrender not" are summoned by a prince - the Sergent's Harrow classmate - who seeks their help about some threats to his life. Not long after, they find themselves witnessing his assassination landing them right in the middle of a diplomatic muddle. Mukherjee gets to accompany the body to the princely state, in non-official capacity and he uses this chance to find the mastermind behind it. What he sees is the stark reality behind the the brocades and the traditional splendour that marks a prince's life.

What works:
  • The grandeur of the royal palace, their lifestyle and traditions is well captured.
  • Also Mukherjee's description of the use of opium is very detailed. I could easily imagine. Couldn't help wondering how much practical research would have gone into it!
  • The story is well paced, the narrative is fluid and the suspense is maintained throughout. I had a tough time figuring out who the culprit was. The story feels complete as the characters are all well etched and move the story forward.
  • Mukherjee's strong point is research. He depicts bygone era where rules and regulations were paramount. As a reader, I could feel the rustle of the curtains of the zenana and the lavish lifestyle of the princes. He really brings them to live, creating a superb atmosphere.
  • The camaderie between the protagnists, the way the subordinate explains the Hindu customs to the Englishman is very endearing at times enlightening.
  • The writing is very smooth, effortless and setting very authentic.

Overall a fabulous read. One of my top reads of the year, easily.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Legacy of Spies - John Le Carre


A master storyteller work that did not work for me

Le Carre is often called as a literary great when it comes to spy stories. His best known one "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" is supposed to be a classic and it is often recommended as the introduction to his works. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is another popular book that has been adapted for the big screen many times. I watched the latest TV series and rather enjoyed it.

Having read all the big reviews, I felt I was really missing out by not reading his books. More so because his new book came out recently after a gap, which resurrected all his earlier ones. Apparently, his latest one was also a hit with the likes of Gordon Brown talking of how accurate his observations were.

With all this hoopla around the writer, I finally decided to go for one of his latest ones, although it followed on from his earlier books.

Gist:

The past has come back to haunt Peter Guillam, one of the aides of Smiley. The new management at MI6, an attempt to protect its reputation, is keen to find out about Operation Windfall. Guilliam is tracked down and asked to account for the various anomalies during the operation.  While Guilliam gives them explanation, we as the reader are taken into confidence as he reveals his own parallel verison to the reader.

What works:
  • The writing style is interesting. The reader is taken into confidence as the version of events unfold. Usually the reader is told of the events, here she is the confidante, privy to the actual set of events.
What doesn't:
  • The writing gets quite dry at times and you are left wondering where is it leading to. Perhaps Le Carre's writing style needs getting used to. 
  • It is a bit of a laborious read. The pace is slow and since much of the story is told in reverse, the story lags in between, leading to wavering attention.
  • It will help if you are familiar with the characters, I was not. I had only seen the TV and on screen adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which was more like a standalone story.
  • I struggled with some bits and even getting to the end, felt a bit dragged along.
Not the greatest of reading experiences, I am afraid. 





A Rising Man - Abir Mukherjee

photo courtesy: amazon.co.uk
A crime story set in the fascinating Old Calcutta

This book created a lot of waves especially since it won a crime writing competition. An accountant by profession, the author explains how the inspiration for it all in an interesting interview on the Asian writer website (http://theasianwriter.co.uk/2016/06/abir-mukherjee/) Reading the interview along with the book was a great way of understanding the writer and his work. Thanks Farhana for posting an insightful interview.


Gist:

Sam Wyndham comes to India for a fresh start. However, within a week of his arrival, there is just the case of him: the murder of an Englishman outside a brothel with his throat slit and a note stuffed into his mouth. A potential loss of face if the word got out, Sam is asssigned the case along with his Sergeant "Surrender-not" (Surendranath) Banerjee to track the perpretrator.

What works:

  • Abir shows off the old Calcutta incredibly well through Sam's eyes. He visualises a beautiful city under British Raj revealing a good grasp of setting. 
  • Loved the word play with "Surrender-not" and how Mukherjee establishes the relationship between the two main characters - The oriental and the occidental (the idea behind using these words is to shed light on the subject of the rulers and the subjects) . the two main characters are well etched as are some other recurring characters such as Miss Grant.
  • The plot is well thought out, detailed and Mukherjee is clearly comfortable with the setting. The idea of setting crime stories in British Raj Calcutta is novel, unexplored as yet. The story pans out very well and it is amazing how the characters fit in so well with the characters.
  • It is very easy to visualises this as a TV series. Here's hoping it happens soon.
What doesn't:
  • The book is how it should be. Entertaining with lots of action, as well as educating a colonial about the ways of Indian culture.  It is laid out commendably well and has the ingredients of a satisfying read.
I am on the lookout for the next book in the series.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Ishq and Mushq - Priya Basil

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I am reading this book at at time when the existence of the commonwealth body is being questioned.

Although I have reservations about how and why Commonwealth came into existence, I appreciate how it has contributed to the fields of Sports and Literature. 

Funnily enough I picked up this book only after learning that it made it to the commonwealth writers shortlist. To me, it adds a certain level of credibility and often I have enjoyed Commonwealth shortlists more than the Booker prize ones.

Commonwealth offers opportunities to countries that otherwise eclipsed by the more powerful who always almost hog the limelight.

When it comes to sport, India always shines at Commonwealth games rather than the Olympics. It always bags more medals at this event rather than the Olympics  where it is China and America who rule the roost. 

But I am more concerned about literature and to me, it showcases a vast array of writers who would have escaped notice. Discovering Basil in this manner was a surprise and a lovely one at that.

Gist:
Sarna a young bride is travelling with her husband from Amritsar to Kenya to her in laws house. The story tracks the journey of this young couple as they move into a joint family and then move out to seek their own fortune in London. Spanning continents with historic events at the backdrop, the story is a fascinating tale of the importance of food, domestic lives and how the past comes back to haunt the present and threatens their future.

What works:
  • Basil writes beautifully. Her imagery and her descriptions are superb and it is a joy to read it.
  • She is talking of a time when Kenyan immigrants moved into London and made it their home. She draws a great verbal picture and though I have no idea how authentic it is, to my mind, it felt genuine. It felt as I was peeking through a door that showed me how London became the cosmopolitan city that it is now is.
  • The characters are distinct - particularly Sarna. It is a strong woman character and the story pivots around her. It is a character driven story and yet it shows how she has an impact on the lives of her family. 
  • Loved the way food has been used to convey emotions such as resentment, hatred and secrecy.
What doesn't:

  • The story slags a bit in the middle. I lost the momentum and was a bit bogged down by the slow pace. However like every good story it perks up as the denouement comes in sight and then tights up neatly.

  • The story could have really picked up if only something drastic would have happened. However, the turning point doesn't seem that significant. The so called revelation does not seem to have that much impact and that was a bit of a letdown.

But it is a well written book. The imagery and the description especially connecting food and emotions is beautifully done. 

I liked it enough to gift a copy to a bookloving friend.




Friday, 20 April 2018

Girl Zero - A.A.Dhand

photo courtesy:goodreads.com
Desi voice, angrezi style

Thrillers are a big favourite and I have enjoyed quite a few, often re-reading them to relive the experience. I love the genre for its character analysis and how the situations justify their actions and behaviour. I always found more psychology in fiction than textbooks and this book reminds me of why I love the genre so much.

I heard about this book at a workshop which was part of the Asian Writers 10th anniversary celebrations. The author Dhand was part of a panel talking about crime writing as a genre and shared his frustration for writing such a different story. He spoke of his struggles in refusing to typecast himself into a particular mould to appeal to the commercial forces.

Reading the book, I felt it was a brave attempt from this. debut author. Although I am not a big fan of "this kind" of crime thrillers (read lots of violence), I could relate to this one, because I was familiar with the backstory and could understand what the writer was doing with the plot and characters.

Gist:
Second in the Harry Virdee series, it is the story of this Cop who is estranged from his Sikh family for marrying a Muslim Girl. The story opens with Virdee, a cop finding out that his niece has been murdered and him stepping foot into his parent's house after ages to break the news.

What works:
  • The opening scene is powerful. It drew me in with its tension and hook. It shows how Virdee is feeling the pressures of his job and creates the curiosity of what is going to happen next.
  • There is blood and gore but it is part of the story. Dhand is talking about the dark side of Bradford and well it justifies its presence.
  • I enjoyed the personal lives of the characters, it is engaging and makes sure that it has a continuing thread that will run through its subsequent books too.
  • The writing style is snappy and very contemporary. Here is a writer who doesn't mince words and knows how to make an impact with it.
  • I followed the newspapers from where the basic plot is based on. It was great to watch how the author has shaped it to fit the fiction mould, while adding his own touches.
What doesn't:
  • At times there feels like a desperate attempt to keep up the gore part to appeal to certain type of reading audience. To me, it was a bit much.
Overall, a good read. I loved the novelty of it all, how a desi writer combines Indian sensibilities into this "firangi" thriller. I am looking forward to finding out how the complicated personal lives of the main characters will play out in the later books.




Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Couple Next Door - Shari Lapena

goodreads.com
A tense domestic thriller that starts brilliantly.

Canadian novelist Shari Lapena's The Couple Next Door is indeed a much talked about thriller as the jacket proclaims. It has drummed a lot of attention which is why I went around looking for it. Her bio reads that she was a lawyer and an English teacher before she turned to writing. That experience surely must have helped us as she combines her knowledge of police procedures and writing style to form a riveting plot for her story.

Gist:

It starts off brilliantly. The story opens with a set of new parents at their next door neighbour's party. The opening scene is brilliant, it is tense, there is a lot happening and draws you in completely. It showed my student self how opening scenes are done. Superb. The mother is tearful, she is watching her hostess flirting with her husband as she battles feelings of hopelessness and low self esteem as a new mother. By the end of the chapter we learn that the baby has disappeared from its cot while the couple are still partying with their neighbours.

Who did it? How did it happen? Although the couple starts of as victims, they soon find themselves as suspects. Then begins the cat and mouse game of finding out who is telling the truth and crucially who has done it.

What works:
  • It is the stuff that every parent can relate to. The fear of losing a child, the fear of criticism and blame as a new mother. Lapena does it brilliantly. I loved Anne and how she holds on shreds of self esteem while tries to figure what was happening.
  • There are not many characters but Lapena makes them count. I loved the husband and wife. It was exciting to watch how the couple seen as victims turn into suspects. She builds up the tension quite well and I won't lie, it had me up till quite late in the night. 
What does not:
  • The narrative is superb. I kept on turning pages in a rush to get to the end. However, the reveal was not as great as the build up.
  • Halfway through you could see where the plot was leading to and though the writing style was good, it fizzled out a bit for me, as I felt as though Lapena was trying to secondguess the reader.
  • There are lots of twists and turns and there is one that is revealed right at the end but then by that time, it was hard to be surprised at all. The momentum somehow depleted for me.
Overall a great fast track read. It has a great premise and a riveting writing style, just wish the build up was as good as the reveal.