Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Agincourt Bride - Joanna Hickson
Joanna Hickson’s Catherine de Valois in the Agincourt Bride, is a valiant attempt to break into a genre dominated by the likes of Phillipa Gregory.

Although a great debut, the Agincourt Bride falls short of the punch, characteristic of a Gregory novel. But then, it is unfair to be harsh on Hickson for the beginning of the novel pulls you right in. Told through the eyes of the nursemaid and confidante Guillaumette, it introduces the birth and traces the life of Catherine de Valois of France, during her tough childhood and later the court intrigue surrounding her as the daughter of a manipulative, corrupt queen and a mad king.

The crucial thing with such peripheral characters such as the nursemaid telling the story is that they must always be in the sidelines, keeping the limelight on the main characters. Hickson’s Catherine though is projected as the beautiful, strong willed character, fails to match up to Guillaumette (called “Mette”) who often ends up being more stoic and better character of the two.

Phillipa Gregory’s "King’s fool" also had a similar character, a courtier who bears eyewitness to the power struggles between Elizabeth and Mary and often suffers the consequences of being in that unique position. Yet she never becomes the focus of the story which unfortunately is not the case with Mette.

The pace too tends to dry up in places, making it a chore to plough through. But then giving credit where it is due, Hickson's effective use of the epistolary device offers a new dimension to the story.The letters revealing Catherine’s most private emotions in her letters to her brother Charles, the heir to the throne of France, furthers the plot while offering insight into the character. That along with Mette’s perspective offers some great moments in the novel, albeit in parts.

What works for the Agincourt Bride:
A great start. Mette’s self introduction is very engaging and hooks the reader
Hickson’s idea to choose Catherine de Valois, an interesting character with a lot of potential
The epistolary device

What doesn’t:
The strong introduction fails to sustain interest 
Writing tends to drag in places
The peripheral character ends up overshadowing the main character

Having said this, this debut novel holds a lot of promise and it is not easy to tackle such a subject especially for a first time author.  Also, the book offers an extract to its sequel, which continues Catherine’s journey to England as the Queen where she founds the Tudor dynasty. Hope the story which has started on a bit of a shaky ground will come into its own in the second book.

A great attempt as a debut novel.  Go for it but don’t expect it to be a White Queen or Red Queen and you won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Almond Tree - Michelle Corsanti

photo courtesy:garnet publishing
It is not often that a novel enlightens and entertains at the same time. Michelle Cohen Corasanti’s The Almond Tree does just that.

 Set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the story unfolds through the eyes of seven year old brilliant child, Ahmed Hamid, as he helplessly watches his toddler sister stray into an area filled with landmines and die in front of him.

The narrator, Ahmed displays an amazing ability for academics. However he has to put his dreams on hold when circumstances force him to take over the responsibilities of his family. Eventually, Ahmed gets the chance to make a clean start and pursue his academic dream. But this decision comes at a price, with severe repercussions on his family.

What works for The Almond Tree:
  • Gripping storyline tracing Ahmed’s journey from a country Arab to a renowned professor in the US
  • Great scenes between characters such as clash of ideals between Ahmed and his brother Abbas          
  • The confrontation between Ahmed and his Jewish mentor, depicting the two sides of the conflict 
To the writer’s credit, the Almond Tree is a truly fascinating story that highlights the unrest in Israel occupied Palestinian territories. I remember watching TV reports about the incidents in Gaza but this book offers a whole new perspective about the situation. Despite the atrocities, the book has a very positive feel to it, depicting how choices change people’s lives for the better or worse.

However on another level, it is also the life story of Ahmed as he transforms from a war-struck teenager to an intellectual youth and subsequently an accomplished individual and yet at each stage struggles to strike a balance between his past experiences and personal choices.

For these reasons alone, certain shortcomings of the novel, such as smoother transition of events or lack of development of minor characters can be overlooked. Abbas is a strong character and could have been developed better but perhaps was overtaken by the sheer magnitude of the story. The narrative is smooth and despite the bumpy rides when the story takes abrupt turns, it sweeps one along till the end.  

Overall, a great read that throws light on the conflicts in the Middle East at the same time as the personal life journey of an individual who makes tough choices and has the courage to live with it. 

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Of God and Food for thought...

Some of  my most profound conversations often transpire with strangers.

Well this one happened when a guy came to paint our garage door the other day. Halfway through, a cup of black tea was duly requested. I brought it out to him but couldn't help noticing the carton of soya milk he produced.

"Oh, dairy allergy, " my mind pinged and I said it aloud.

"No, a vegan by choice," he answered. I was surprised. A white guy who is off milk and meat. I had heard of many vegans but meeting one was a first for me in this country.

My ethnicity and diet has often led to many a a question in the past.  "Is it a  religion diktat or a matter of choice?" and then further clarification, "Does that mean fish is off limits as well?"

Believe it or not, people in the UK often find it difficult, incredulous even, to believe that being a vegetarian means not consuming anything living. Fish included. Our diet often evokes awestruck looks from our non-English acquaintances, literally elevating us to the status of a martyr.

Anyway, so this guy was one step further. No milk or yoghurt either. And that too for a good number of years. He now had my total attention. I asked him how he got by.

"It is very inconvenient for my family but I cook my own food, bake my own cakes. It is not too bad."

I said it was refreshing to meet a white British guy who was off meat just like us. He explained his reason for staying off meat and milk was an expression of solidarity towards animals.

"But for you, it must be a religion thing, isn't it?" It was his turn to probe.

I said yes. But what started off on a religious note was now a matter of choice as well.


Talks turned to religion and suddenly there was a barrage of questions - What is it like being a Hindu? Was I a believer? Did God exist for me?

Taken back, I asked him was he a sceptic? He admitted, he was a cynic who had sampled various forms of beliefs imposed by friends and family.

He had seen the transformation in his troubled sister after she became a Buddhist and accompanies his friend to celebratory evenings of being an evangelist christian at the local church . Both had made unsuccessful attempts to draw him to their beliefs.

"I can empathise with their ideology and wish I could share their faith but I can't."

Taking a sip of his tea with a faraway look in his eye, he asked, "Buddhism believes that there is no self and after death you become at one with the God. Is that how Hinduism works as well?"

I told him yes, the Bhagwad Gita preaches of the soul (aatma) joining the bigger force (paramaatma) but confessed that my knowledge was far too limited to embark on a discussion about it.

How quick are we to typecast people on the basis of their profession! I recalled reading a class survey on the BBC website the other day where some random factors were used to determine people's place in the society. The generalised survey seemed an unfair means of slotting people and after this chat, I began to believe it was more so.

Nonetheless, worried that matters were getting too theological at the cost of the job at hand, I offered to take his empty cup back in.

"Thanks, that was the most interesting tea break I have had in a while," he said as he handed the cup and picked up the brush.

I smiled back at him.

As he resumed the paintwork, I sat down to do the same with words instead.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

PD James - A Certain Justice

courtesy: bookand 
This author was a surprising discovery when I picked up the book randomly at the library. Reading a couple of utterly compelling chapters was enough to pique my curiosity to look her up. Well, I realised how much ignorant I had been, to discover that she is one of the doyens of British crime fiction, an OBE and has a solid fan following. However, there was also another minor detail that brought me great delight; such a talented and celebrated writer shared her birthday with me! 

The reason for my heightened excitement is that, well at present, I have a low patience threshold with writers unfamiliar writers. A
shattered mother sitting up half the night for my baby, I often quit reading "new" authors mid-way. But once I picked up this book, it had me hooked, forcing me turn just one page before setting it aside for the night.

A Certain Justice is about a high flying, unsentimental and ambitious female lawyer at the height of a very promising career in a cut-throat male dominated profession. So when she is discovered dead in her office, there is no dearth of enemies as suspects. This sets the scene for the entry of Adam Dalgliesh (quite an unusual name!), the detective who then solves the case with the help of his subordinates, Kate and Piers.

However, what was most impressive is James’ writing style; very instructive of what good writing is all about. The way she paints verbal pictures, fleshes out the characters, endearing them to the reader before they set out to commit actions is truly remarkable. It reminds one of Elizabeth George but then James (now hitting her 90s) has been around long enough be an inspiration for George instead of the other way round.

The only downside as such is her rather “meticulous” approach to introducing the story. Perhaps it can be interpreted as a slow introduction of the background of characters before getting to the plot, but then this reader is used to modern writers who, marred by insecurity, launch into the murder right away.

James’ mystery is well paced with twists and turns keeping the reader guessing till the very end. Even the violent scenes are described with panache, illuminating the dark side of human nature. However, she has tendency to justify human actions, often found in the dialogue of case-solving detective. But then this is my first Dalgliesh novel and I am curious to see how the detective’s character pans out in the other novels especially since he is said to be a poet detective, the evidence of which was missing in this one.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Ruler of the world by Alex Rutherford -Book review

English writers have a lot to say about their rulers and the monarchy and there is a slew of works in historical fiction dedicated to their stories .

I would think, "Why can't Indian writers in English come up with stories about the Indian monarchy particularly since we have a whole variety to choose from: The mughals, chola dynasty etc."

I was pleasantly surprised to discover  this book at our local library and picked it up when the book cover said that this was the story of Akbar. My knowledge of Akbar stems from our history books in school and  popular Hindi films like Mughal-E-Azam and more recently, Jodha-Akbar.

The book which is a fictionalised account of Akbar provided with an interesting insight into his conquests, his mindset which had consequences on not only his kingdom but also his family. It also helped me dispel some notions;  unlike what Jodha-Akbar claimed to portray, theres was no love story but  a political alliance. Jodha  always maintained anti-mughal stand against Akbar which in turn transferred into her son Salim who turned against his father eventually. Even the Salim-Anarkali romance was more a case of Salim stealing her away from Akbar's harem, after she was brought into the court for the Emperor's pleasure.

I wasn't sure how true these accounts were but the author has an acknowledgement note which clearly indicates the research that has gone into creating this work and I feel that he has been more authentic than Ashutosh Gowarikar (director of Jodha akbar) or K.Asif (director of Mughal-e-azam).

Rutherford has a whole new series of the mughal rulers and although the narrative is a bit dry and too crammed up in places, (it cannot be easy to sum up a ruler's life scan in a few hundred pages), it still made for some very interesting reading.

Would  greatly recommended for those who would like to know about the mughal dynasty, in easy-to-read fictionalised fashion.

Custody - Book review

enjoyed Manju Kapur's previous novel Home, and was looking forward to this one with anticipation. Custody is set in the 1990s economic boom era when multinational giants swooped down on India and ushered in various cultural and economic changes.
In such a backdrop, custody deals with the implications of divorce and the way it cuts through families, relationships and mindsets.

The book is essentially about Shagun and Raman, their disintegration of marriage and how it affects their relationship and more importantly their relationship with their children who have to bear the brunt of their parent's separation.

The story is very well told, and Kapur shows a good insight into the intricacies of the family fabric, the social implications of the extended family (in-laws) and the perception of a divorcee in the Indian society. Her sensitive handling of the shift in relationships following a divorce, how the dynamism of the relationship with "in-laws" changes following an acrimonious separation is commendable.

To me, this is what true India is about, walking the fine line between tradition and modernisation. An era where the young generation is well caught up with demanding jobs, luxurious lifestyles, courtesy the side effects of a westernised society. On the other hand, the concept of joint families is still prevalent where every decision has rippling effect on each family member, not to mention the societal pressure of justifying the decision among friends and neighbours.

For anyone interested in India, this book comes highly recommended. Instead of looking for India in its slums and villages and many writers do, this is the India that I have lived in and can identify with. It surely struck a chord with me for its great storytelling and at the same time for providing an insight into the modern Indian family.

Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie may have ushered in a new era but it is writers like Manju Kapur who  have shown that Indian writing has matured with changing times and has come of age.

Plus points of the book: A good narrative and well developed characters that shows what the modern Indian family is all about.

Great read. Highly recommended.