1

Personal – Lee Child

This book was sent to me by the Sweet Santa’s at Penguin Random House India in exchange of an honest review

Another Jack Reacher novel, I think to myself with glee. I open it tentatively, worried that this might be the one I don’t like. After all, being the 20th book in a series does take a toll on the creative juices of most authors after all. Well, I should have had just a little more faith – I read the whole book in one sitting through the night and loved it, with the only drawback being a slightly groggy head in the morning. I am going to skip over the discussion of the cover design. Suffice to say a shadowed man in front of a French background is adequate and does the job – one can’t expect thriller/ spy novels to lend themselves to a lot of creativity.

‘You leave the army but the army never leaves you’ is the premise of the whole book. While this statement must feel a tad over-embellished to those who have not known life in an army family, to those who have, it makes perfect sense. So when Jack Reacher is contacted by a superior, O’Day, through the simple process of putting up an advertisement in an Army daily, it makes sense that it will eventually find its way into Reacher’s hands at some point. The only glitch would be the time-frame it would take to achieve this result – thankfully for them, Reacher solves that problem by happening to pick up the paper the first day the advertisement is put up. The reason for his summons, someone has taken a long-range shot at the French President and there are only so many snipers in the world with the capability to do that. If it seems unbelievable to you, understand that the long-range here refers to a shot taken at around a distance of approximately 1400 yards – little more than 1.28 kilometers or 1280 meters. In the Olympics, shooters are across a range of 300 meters from their targets and still miss while the range for High Power Rifles and FullBore target shooting are a maximum of 600 yards and 1200 yards, respectively. Get the idea about how rare a shooter would have to be in order to hit the target at 1400 yards? Obviously, such a shooter would only be found in one of the elite wings of military forces around the world and now the US government is naturally worried whether the pot-shot at the French president was taken by one of their men. Why is Reacher necessary for catching the guy? Because he put a guy with just such qualifications behind bars 16 years ago for a 15-year prison sentence and he is now out and about. The chase takes them to France and back and then on to English soil. Reacher has been assigned a young female partner, Casey Nice, to monitor his movements at all times and report back to the powers that be. I liked the relationship they forge under conditions of severe stress and the way they work together so harmoniously.

The book as usual is fast-paced and full of Reacher taking risks against enormous odds. Sometimes though, one wonders if Jack has a death wish we don’t know about. After all, jumping into so many dangerous situations, often without a single forethought, is not very conducive to the continued well-being of any individual. However, the greatest takeaway from this book is that Reacher certainly has an angel sitting on his shoulder who deflects bullets and keeps villains talking to him instead of shooting him immediately, which invariably gives him time to devise a getaway plan. I also learnt a bit about his parents in this book and was suitably impressed. His sidekick, Casey, at times has some bizarre ideas like calling an ambulance for the thugs who were about to slowly murder both of them before Jack beat them up, but overall she holds her own in Reacher’s hair-brained schemes and shows remarkable guts at the worst of times. I read a few reviews that found the plot far-fetched and not very engaging since it was set in Europe, but I thought it was great. After some confusion, I also understood the climax of the book and was suitably surprised. Things like that are totally possible – I just can’t tell you more and spoil the surprise.

A long running series like Jack Reacher usually tends to run out of steam in the later additions to the series, but Lee Child has thankfully managed to avoid falling into any kind of rut as far as his main protagonist and plotlines are concerned. Eventually, I suppose, he will make Reacher disappear, probably in a hut in Alaska, to maintain the credibility of the series, but for now we can just pray that he keeps giving him more and more adventurous missions to take care of. (I mistakenly wrote that the author would eventually kill him off to end the series, but was so appalled at the idea that I had to change it immediately.)

6

Decoding Bollywood – Sonia Golani

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This book was sent to me in exchange of an honest review by the folks at WritersMelon and Westland Books

Bollywood is as integral a part of Indian life as is spicy food. We all love the glitz, the glamour and the over-the-top romances of our film industry. Everyday half the population of the country turns first to the colourful newspaper sections dealing with the personal lives of the stars we love before looking at national headlines. However, the ones who don’t receive such open adulation are the masters behind the lens who actually orchestrate the whole film-making process and make our beloved actors shine – our movie directors. The real movie buffs and aficionados, like my husband, have always payed more attention to the director of a movie than to its stars. This book brings to life the directors of the much loved movies of recent times in an intimate chatty kind of way.

On receiving this book, I had to wait for a few days before my husband would hand it over to me. This book would have actually made a great coffee-table book since it is a wonderful conversation starter – namely, the ones that begin with ‘Did you know?’ How do I know this? Getting poked by your husband, who has a completely different set of tastes in reading material than you, just when you are at the cusp of falling into deep sleep with a question that begins with ‘Did you know…?’ gives you a unique insight into the curiosity-meter of a book – in this case, high enough to make an inherently intelligent man forget never to provoke a sleeping tiger(ess).

The book lends itself best to be read one chapter at a time, following them with references and discussions with friends and family of the movies that we all have seen. The narrative style is simplistic and easy on the brain cells, so even the so-called non-readers must not worry about picking up this book. The stories that unfold as each director talks about his/her initial struggles are in some cases truly inspirational. They are stories of incredible passion taking on the greatest odds and coming out triumphant in the end. It tells us how fickle the glamour world can be and how these people have picked themselves up from their very public, and often devastating financial, failures and tried once again to deliver the perfect hit. While reading about the different experiences of the directors another thing that comes across is the presence of people in the industry with an incredible eye for talent and the courage to stand up for what they believe is a worthy choice; for example, Aditya Chopra giving Kunal Kohli a chance to make Hum Tum after the phenomenal failure of Mujse Dosti Karoge. It somehow reaffirms your faith in mankind after all the horror stories one hears about those trying for a break in the Bollywood industry.

All in all, if you are a Bollywood lover, then this is a book tailor made for your bookshelves. The only drawback is, now you wish for a similar book written about 15 years ago with interviews with all the beloved directors that Golani missed.

4

The Random House November Book-bag and an Anniversary

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So November marks one year of writing reviews for Penguin Random House for me. I have received tons of beautiful books, lots of great stories and have been introduced to some astounding new authors. Not only have the wonderful people at Random house sent me great books, they have sent them to me at three different addresses as I travelled around the country with nary a complaint. I thank them for the opportunity and for giving me many evenings of being blissfully ensconced with a book in my favourite nooks around the house with an additional pile of books at my elbow.

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Well, you can see my hoard for the past year and I am suitably awestruck by it myself now that I see them all together. Thank you so much Penguin Random House for making a girl’s dreams come true.

Also, I would like to thank all the readers who took the time to go through my reviews and made me feel I could do it. At times when I have felt my writing may not be doing justice to the ideas that I wish to convey, your comments and well wishes have pushed me to push myself and not give in to self-pity. I also send out a cosmic hug to all my fellow blogger friends from all over the world who are a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to me.

This month I received two books from Penguin Random House, both of which I have been very eager to read for some time now.

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  •  J – Howard Jacobson (of the Finkler Question fame)
  •  Personal – Lee Child.

Happy Reading!

0

The sweet life of Dharma and Greg runs again on Romedy Now

A young boy and a little girl come face-to-face for the first time on the subway and manage to give each other tentative smiles before they are whisked away by their respective parents. Years later they bump into each other once again in the subway and this time decide to take matters into their own hands, or at least Dharma does. When Greg, who is a district attorney, reaches his office still moping about the fact that he didn’t have the courage to stop and say ‘Hi’ to this beautiful girl he met on the subway, he finds Dharma waiting for him, comfortably ensconced on his table – his picture was in the paper that day. They go out on a date there and then and by the time the sun goes down, they are married.

This is where the story really begins. You see, Dharma is a flower child, a daughter of free-thinking parents who are still living the hippie lifestyle. The name Dharma is actually supposed to be derived from the Indian word ‘Dharam‘, a term that means one or all of the following – duty, religion, responsibility and morality. Although Dharma is loud and impulsive, she is also shown to be a kind, trusting, honest and perceptive individual. Greg on the other hand belongs to a rich, snooty and rigid political family with not a whiff of ‘free thinking’ to cloud their minds. Coming from a privileged and protected background, he is not always comfortable with situations that he does not understand and is not so open to trusting other people. However, he loves Dharma unconditionally and is willing to submit to her will on most topics. What follows this unlikely partnership is a hilarious mix of misunderstandings or complete discord between the two sets of parents and also Dharma and Greg as they struggle with the differences in their ideologies and beliefs. Dharma and Greg were the quintessential example of ‘opposites attract’, a maxim that every girl held close to her heart in those days – the days before internet had become a household luxury and we were still relatively innocent and naive. In a perfect couple, the girl was supposed to be bubbly, outgoing and a mounhphat (outspoken/a person who blurts out what he/she is thinking/ forthright), whereas the guy was supposed to be the strong, silent, slightly bewildered and completely bewitched by her type.

Rule 1 of marriage - Always knowing how to make your partner feel better

Rule 1 of marriage – Always knowing how to make your partner feel better

Dharma and Greg was the perfect romantic comedy for an Indian teenager at the time it was released in 1997. It fuelled fantasies of walking in from work one day and telling your parents you had met your soul-mate and married him in the few hours you were out of the house. Strangely, the face of this mystery man was never clear in these fantasies, but the faces of mom and dad were always crystal! It was impossible to imagine anyone like Dharma’s parents in real life, with such a carefree and trusting outlook on people and life, except on the ‘establishment’ – loosely used to represent anything related to the government. Greg’s parents were actually more Indian in their outlook, although definitely more restrained! Although, I suppose, if Greg’s mother was not prone to drinking so much she may well have had a histrionic reaction on par with that of most Indian mothers whose sons brought home a daughter-in-law of another class/caste.

Rule No. 2 in a marriage - Disagree in a loving manner to avoid undue conflict

Rule No. 2 in a marriage – Disagree in a loving manner to avoid undue conflict

After all these years, Romedy Now , a channel dedicated to bringing you a daily dose of romantic comedy, presents the reruns of Dharma and Greg once again.  How is it that nobody thought of this concept before, considering that most of us have friends, sisters, younger brothers, girlfriends, wives, husbands or daughters who are suckers for stuff like this? Every woman who was a teen in 1997 is sure to watch the series with a sigh of nostalgia, dreaming of the days when you waited to meet your soul-mate for the very first time. Greg played by Thomas Gibson was of course the perfect example of what a man should be – loving, loyal and easily manipulated. The men will probably just watch it for the beautiful Dharma played by Jenna Elfman. Dharma and Greg was the first comedy to turn an expletive, ‘shut up’, to a cute greeting among friends, which quickly became the cool catchphrase for all girls in high school. There were tense moments all around when you forgot yourself and said this to your mother at home until she realised it was the new phase, usually after administering a blistering tirade, and forgave you.

Such Noble Ideals

Such Noble Ideals

There is nothing like the old-time comedies to wish away the stress of your daily commute and work. They are a reminder of the times when things were simpler, although New York in 1997 feels pretty much like India today what with mobile phones and subways and lots of people around. Maybe they are just a reminder of when we were young and of first impressions that shaped our likes and dislikes. Or when going to school and homework were the biggest burdens on our heads. Whatever the excuse, a smile and a laugh on Romedy Now at no great cost are preferable to me rather than the disturbing and often scary new-age vampire and zombie sagas airing on most channels every evening.

So go ahead, kick up your heels and cuddle up on your sofa for an evening with Dharma and Greg at 7:30 p.m. on weekdays at Romedy Now and laugh your weekday evenings away. You can follow Romedy NOW for more information to their sitcom lineups at http://www.facebook.com/RomedyNOW or tweet them @Romedy NOW.

6

The Monogram Murders – Sophie Hannah

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I have always been a sucker for sequels and when it comes to authors I love, I lose all will power and good sense. More often than not sequels have always disappointed me, but I still persevere. When the Agatha Christie estate announced that they had commissioned a new Poirot novel I was equal parts appalled and excited – because having read so many sequels to the works of so many great authors by other great authors I have realized that it is almost impossible to replicate a particular style of writing, and yet hope springs eternal in the heart of a bibliophile.

So, I got my hands on the Monogram Murders as soon as possible, which was not fast enough for me. The gold and black cover design is very chic and stylish and reflective of the cufflinks that give the book its name. The silhouette of the beloved, slightly portly Poirot on the cover is a nice touch, though I was not a fan of the body shaped outline in the shadows. The book is priced very competitively and even more so on Amazon.in, which is always a major consideration for the Indian market, and still manages to be printed on good paper and have a classy cover.

Hercule Poirot has taken lodgings just opposite from his home in order to get away from the constant flow of petitioners who keep popping up at his door. While there he makes a new friend in Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who is the other lodger and the narrator of this story. Poirot makes a weekly outing to Pleasant’s Coffee House in the not so upmarket part of London in pursuit of the perfect brew and his dinner. On the Thursday evening that we meet Poirot, his dinner is interrupted by a distraught and frightened lady bursting into the cafe. Since she appears to be terrified of something or somebody Poirot takes it upon himself to inquire if he may be of any help.The lady confides in him, makes a very cryptic comment and after proclaiming that she is about to be murdered rushes out of the shop, leaving Poirot suitably worried. On returning to his lodging, Poirot encounters the distraught Catchpool who has just returned from an inquiry into three murders that have occurred in the Bloxham hotel. Each dead body has a monogrammed cufflink in his/her mouth. Poirot immediately concludes that the two events are somehow linked to each other and undertakes solving Catchpool’s murder mystery for him. Catchpool is more than happy to let Poirot take over as he has his own set of limitations when it comes to dead people. Their inquiries lead them to the village of Great Holling and the dark secrets that reside there and to a famous portrait painter. The Bloxham hotel plays a recurring role throughout the book and is the theater where the last act of the tragedy takes place. The employees of the hotel are presented as the sweetest, most co-operative people to have ever worked in the hospitality industry and surprisingly I found myself wishing for a hotel manager like Lazarri.

My feelings about this book are extremely mixed.

The Poirot that we have grown up falling in love with is definitely missing from the pages. Sophie Hannah’s Poirot is more English than he ever was in the original Christie novels. He speaks much better in more complete sentences than he did before and he ‘smiles to himself’ a bit too much. There are occasional mentions about his moustaches and a token one about his need for symmetry in his surroundings. After going through almost half the book, I realized that if the author had named her detective something besides Poirot I would have actually been satisfied with his character. Even though he is present in every chapter in the book, his presence never really registers over that of the plot and its main characters. But for Poirot, all the other characters are superbly etched. Catchpool, Fee, Lazzari and the rest of the cast are easy to like or loathe depending on their criminal orientations.

Edward Catchpool is the most irritating Scotland Yard detective I have ever read about. His psychological problems with dead people make me question how he has ever survived in the police department for 6 years, two of them in Scotland yard. The author keeps harping about a childhood incident that has scarred him for life and yet it did not elicit even a small drop of sympathy for him from me. He is always horrified or just about to faint whenever anything remotely shocking takes place or is even told to him secondhand as evidence. He is so skittish around witnesses and situations that it is a wonder he hasn’t managed to hurt himself in the process. Hastings was never such a morose, sickly fellow. Perhaps, someone should have suggested to Catchpool that given his revulsion towards the dead and uncomfortable situations he would be better served working as a lawyer’s clerk or a gardener.

The plot itself is not so bad. It is complicated and takes into account human nature which was a favourite theme in Agatha Christie novels. However, maybe it becomes too complex by the same measure. A number of deductions that Poirot manages seem to be no more than excellent guesswork. He leaps from one deduction to another without any discernible clues. In fact, the deduction about the blue basin in the portrait seems debatable to me. The basin links a suspect, who works as a servant, to the village of Great Holling and so must be painted over. The basin in question has been painted into the portrait of a lady who provides another suspect an alibi. It is assumed that the painting was done before the murders took place and the servant disappeared from the house. My question is why would a lady get her portrait painted in a servant’s room where the basin is kept in order to get it into her portrait? After a while, you are just as eager to get to Poirot’s dissertation in front of an audience of about a 100 hotel employees to be able to derive some sense of the puzzle in front of you. Of course, it is all neatly tied up in a bow in  the end and all questions are answered, except the one about the blue basin, and you can finally sit back and take a breather. Also missing from the narrative is the characteristic, subtle and unexpected burst of humour that was a staple of all Agatha Christie books.

Agatha Christie wrote books that seemed so superficial and simple at a glance, but the clarity and completeness of her characters and her plots were never compromised. She never seemed to dwell on explanations of the psychological hang-ups of her characters, instead stating them in a matter-of-fact way and moving on, which is not the case in this book. Dissecting deep psychosis in lead characters is a modern concept and works well most of the time, its just not very Agatha Christie-like. Also, if Sophie Hannah chooses to continue the series, I would suggest losing Edward Catchpool at the first opportunity, not because she has failed him but because she has described him so well that it is impossible to fall in love with him.

So,my verdict is, I liked the plot but felt let down by the almost insipid Poirot in the narrative. Would I read another Poirot book by Sophie Hannah? No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Probably yes.

3

Private L.A. – James Patterson and Mark Sullivan

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This book was sent to me courtesy of Random House India in exchange of an honest review

This would be the third James Patterson thriller I have read in the past few month and once again, I am proud to announce, it hits all the correct spots. Its always a gamble that you might happen to pick up an author’s not-so-great effort the first time and dismiss his other works on the basis of that, as happened on my first outing with Mr. James Patterson. Thankfully, I decided to give him a second chance and am glad that I did. Although, I will still continue to shy away from the Alex Cross series and stick to his other works for the time being.

Private is the name of a detective agency with headquarters all over the world, hence the names of the books. When I read the blurb on Goodreads about the famous Hollywood family that disappears, I wondered if it would have a bit too much of the glamour quotient for me to handle. However, the author is smart enough not to harp on that aspect overmuch and move on with the story instead. There are two or three story lines running parallel to each other and at one point I was sure they will tie up together in a neat bow at the end. That did not happen and that was a twist in itself.

So, we have a disappearing Hollywood family, a group of highly organized terrorists on the loose and a twin accused of murder. The Hollywood family has just finished a long shoot in Vietnam and have taken a few days off to recoup before jumping back into work. Two days into their 6-day break the entire family disappears from the ranch. With the family lawyers and publicists being uncomfortable with police presence, Jack Morgan from Private is asked to step in. As his firm tries to unravel the mystery, they realize that all is not as it seems in the perfect world of the starlets. At the same time, a group of terrorists have decided to hold a city to ransom by shooting a few innocent people every day. Once again, the fear of publicity and loss of political face forces the management to ask for the Private’s help, who will also serve as convenient scapegoats in case of things heading south. The terrorists are highly trained and have a hidden agenda that they manage to carry out at the last minute. An old lady plays a very important and unexpected part in their reign of terror and somehow manages to outshine the entire cast of expected heroes in the book. The twin is an alarming individual for sure, especially since he turns out to be Jack Morgan’s twin and accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend. He is malicious and cruel and absolutely scary. I was left wondering what anyone could do in a situation where one’s own blood is determined to hurt you in the worst possible way. Walking away is not as easy as it would seem. And as matters are not completely resolved between them in the end, I might have to go and pick up the next book in the series soon.

I liked all the characters very much and finally understood what CrossFit actually means. Just reading about one of the characters doing those grueling exercises at 6 in the morning made my joints ache at the same time as making me fantasize about beating everyone else at a program like that and running around in short shorts. That the character is a woman and manages to save her life just because she is supremely fit even though she has no killer instincts may also have played a part in fueling my imagination. The amount of things that I learn from my books never fails to amaze me and quite often those around me.

The book is one of those unputdownable one-night thriller reads, so remember to pick it up on a weekend.

4

Seven Wonders – Ben Mezrich

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This book was sent to me courtesy of Random House India in exchange of an honest review

Seven wonders follows in the proud tradition of the slew of Dan Brownesque novels that have flooded the market in recent years. It is amazing when an author creates a work worthy of getting an entire genre named after him. In normal parlance, these novels would probably fall under the archaeological-detective-religious iconography-thriller-Indian Jones genre. Yes, calling such books the Dan Brown genre is just easier.

The cover of the book is a map of the world superimposed on gears which is a nod to the content of the book and does the job adequately. The yellows and reds are eye-catching.

The story begins when Jeremy Grady, a socially awkward MIT genius, finds that the Ancient seven wonders of the world and the Modern wonders are enantiomers of each other and present themselves mathematically in the form of a double helix. Even as he is musing on this discovery, he is brutally murdered. Enter his twin brother, Jack Grady, who is a field anthropologist and an Indiana Jones-like explorer, to try and figure out the reasons for his brother’s death. He is usually joined by two of his graduate students on his jaunts around the world to ‘raid’ ancient sites in pursuit of a degree. When he is informed of his brother’s death, Jack takes it upon himself to find out the reason for this by the simple process of stealing evidence from the crime scene. That he does not ask to look at security footage but simply rushes out to solve a thrilling puzzle that will in no way get him to his brother’s murderer but surely ensure his tenure is something I worked out halfway through the book. In Rome, Sloane Costa, a botanist, evades guards and manages to get inside the Colosseum’s restricted area to discover an ancient vine that conceals a mural of Amazonian women and an artifact. This leads her on the trail of Jack Grady, the leading light on Amazonian culture and instead of just making a call she follows him half way around the world. Not just that, she then joins him and his graduate students in a mad dash all over the globe to desecrate the most important heritage sites of the world as their resident botanist. Her presence with them never really makes complete sense. That they are never caught or even spotted by any officials as they destroy protected property is only logical. That they manage to evade trained assassins time and again is also a matter of course. The only jarring note is that it seems their trip around the world is funded by their universities, which is just unbelievable. Can you imagine universities who as a rule weep when doling out money for a single light bulb actually funding an illegal treasure hunt? Anyway, as the chase moves from country to country like a global treasure hunt, none of them are really aware of what it is that they are chasing – and unfortunately neither are we. The villain is a powerful woman descended from a line of Amazons, or so we are given to believe, who instead of simply following orders from a faceless organization that seems to send secret messages to all its followers, goes rogue and decides to use her money to find everything even remotely related to the Amazons. I don’t really blame her. After all, I was just as eager to figure out what the organization was trying to protect. Why the Amazons have to remain a secret is beyond my ken. And when the clues lead to the most improbable place of all and the even more improbable discovery there, that is the point when you realize that none of your answers are ever going to be answered.

The book meanders aimlessly through grandiose locations and fantastic premises and yet is never able to create a truly ‘aha’ moment. The most disturbing aspect of the book was the impunity with which the characters set out to destroy ancient artifacts in order to fulfill their ambitions. When professors who study history are so ready to destroy it, can we really ever blame the poor adolescent boys who carve lovelorn messages on monuments. It becomes tedious and boring very soon. The worst bit is not knowing what the characters are really chasing. How will solving an ancient puzzle find the murderer, unless you knew that he/she will be present at the end of the trail as the trophy. There is some extremely good guesswork happening all through the book and at times it is also hilarious – like in the end when all the bronze pieces come together to form a sort-of centipede which when placed at the foot of a sphinx slithers into a hole like a live snake. The idea that the Amazons knew about the double helical structure of our DNA and decided to go to the trouble of painting murals and hiding brass clockwork tablets all over the world to hide the first perfect DNA falls spectacularly flat. Why hide it being the foremost question leaping to the mind? No explanations forthcoming by the way.

In the bit about the visit to the Taj Mahal – even allowing for the artistic license given to all artists – after reading his description of India and Indians I was seriously worried whether I should believe anything else he wrote about the other places that his characters visited. Oh, I agree that Delhi is crowded, really hot, has dirty streets and lots of beggars but is that all that you can see. For one thing, he talks of men in ‘traditional Indian garb (of) flowing white, brown and gray shirts and pants tied at the waist’. I am at a loss to figure out what this ‘traditional garb’ is or where he found men dressed in it. Thankfully, he doesn’t call us snake-charmers – instead, he adds the twist of a rabid, 18-inch-long pet rat on a leash as compensation. We have been inured to Westerners referring to our beloved Lord Ganesh as the ‘Elephant God’ – he isn’t the God of elephants or an Elephant who is a God – but to refer to him as a ‘her’ just shows incredibly poor research. In this age of internet and information explosion to get such a basic thing wrong is just unacceptable and disrespectful. Especially when you are trying to mimic a writing style which was based on mingling fact, fiction and research. The author keeps referring to the loot of idols and jade Buddhas from ‘tombs’ in India, which is an alien concept since we did not build tombs or keep idols in them as far as I know.

So, in case you didn’t figure it out as yet, I didn’t like the book. I agree that it is a creditable effort but for the genre that it aspires to, it misses hitting a lot of spots.

I am truly sorry if the review seems too waspish, but it just seems to be flowing that way today.