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Aavarana – S.L.Bhyrappa

Aavarna is a novel by a well-loved Kannada author, S.L.Bhyrappa, that I managed to read when its English translation hit the bookshelves recently. Its the story of Lakshmi, an educated, liberal, artistic, career-oriented woman, who falls in love with a Muslim man and in order to marry him gives up her own identity.  A few decades later, while working in her professional capacity, events force her to sit back and take a good look at what she gave up and what she received in return.

I really loved the cover by the way. It was quite tasteful and mysterious and tied in very nicely with the story that follows.

With a sincere apology to all Bhyrappa fans, I didn’t like it. First, because I didn’t like Lakshmi at all. Maybe I have never loved as deeply or as passionately as so many people do, but I know for sure I would never have thrown away my name and identity to be with someone, which therefore makes me completely antagonistic and unsympathetic of people who do so. Change of religion should be a matter of spiritual choice, not as a precondition for someone’s love. And then decades later, she suddenly realizes that all the desecrated Hindu temples she must have seen since childhood were broken by the Muslim invaders and that the left liberal, enlightened group that she is a part of is trying hard to cover it up by simply retelling history. She sets forth on a journey to her hometown and makes an appearance at her father’s cremation, after not meeting him for the last 30 years, and then promptly enconces herself in his home to look at his life’s work and compile it as he would have wanted. If you couldn’t be loyal or even respectful of someone while they were alive, it just seems presumptuous to ‘carry on their life’s work’ when they are there no more. Her actions feel more like a mid-life crisis rather than an awakening and the author quickly seems to lapse into a narrative style that begins to resemble a tirade. I believe a hint of subtlety goes a long way in getting a message across, instead of a message that tends more to infuriate and make one feel disheartened, except maybe when dealing with teenagers and college students. I am not an overtly religious person, but I understood the author’s complete disillusionment with the ruling class and its not-so-subtle efforts to woo the minorities. Why not simply be honest? Call a spade a spade. If a Hindu commits a crime then name him, and if a Muslim does so then do the same for him. How can a democracy allow different divorce laws and marriage laws for different religions in its constitution? It is utterly ridiculous. And before I become side-tracked I must tell the reader that Lakshmi also begins to write a novel within the novel, which was just simply not nice. I never felt any empathy for her main protagonist who happens to undergo a fate ‘worse than death’ and spends so much of his times listening to long speeches. I was completely at a loss about the motivation for her story line and the conclusion she formulates for it.

But then, the one thing this novel made me realize is the resilience and tenacity of faith in an individual and in a community. Oh not that of the fickle Lakshmi, but all around us. Look at the Jews; prosecuted for centuries and still alive and kicking. The Parsis, whom we love thanks to Bollywood and Boman Irani, who maybe down to 4-digit numbers and yet stick to the rigid tenets of their religion and faith and move on. Even the historical notes in the novel, that tell us about the oppression carried out over centuries on the Hindus, reaffirm the hold of faith over a civilization that refused to simply roll over and die. It has happened over and over again in world history, at different times and with different civilizations, yet we live on in hope of a better tomorrow for all.

So yes, this novel did make me think about my position with regard to my beliefs and my faith, which it set out to do, but it also made me uncomfortable and bored after a while. But it must be read by others to get a viewpoint from different perspectives, although it will unfortunately always tend to engender extreme reactions both for and against its story line and views. And I am sure, neither will be happy with mine. But hey, I am just someone who reads a lot of books and either likes the stories or doesn’t and in the end the story is all that counts.

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Until the end of time – Danielle Steele

This book was provided to me courtesy of Random House India for review purposes.

I remember reading ‘Bittersweet’ by Danielle Steele as a teenager and being thoroughly demoralized by it. I thought I would give her one more try as most girls in my circle absolutely loved her work. Unfortunately, the next one I picked up was also based on the same theme as Bittersweet, that of a middle aged woman divorced by her husband for the sake of a young woman. I just don’t like stories like that, so I stopped reading her altogether. When I received this book in my book bag I was a bit apprehensive but thankfully it turned out to be quite okay, with a very Hindi movie twist.

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So, lets begin.The book begins with the love story of a married couple, the wife is a consultant and muse in the fashion industry and the husband is studying to become a minister of the church. They are madly in love with each other and surprisingly their story doesn’t become jaded or taken over by the everyday things of life. It does get a bit too sweet  at one point but then the author knows just when to stop. And then begins the second half of the story, 35 years later. Its about an Amish girl who writes a novel and sends it off to a publisher in New York and how the publisher falls for her. Its nice in a standalone way but somehow seems not to be as connected to the first part of the book as the author wanted.

It will do well for people who love modern day romances. Its on the reincarnation theme that is a beloved of all Indians. A neat and clean love story, with two couples with such a deep understanding of each other that after reading this book even I was compelled to allow my husband to watch his news channels without any cribbing from me, at least for one day.

There is an incredible amount of sweetness in this book, so be prepared for a sugar rush when you dive into this story.

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The Thousand Names – Django Wexler

My very dog-eared copy

My very dog-eared copy

This book was provided to me courtesy of Random House India for review purposes.

To be honest, ‘The Thousand Names’ looked like a daunting read. It’s a hefty book on war and seemed like something I may not enjoy. Then I started reading, and simply got swept away in its flow. I read it while coming and going to work in the metro and it was quite fun to see the looks on the faces of my fellow passengers, with their compact i-phones and Androids,  as they saw me pull out this massive tome out of my bag. I was also reading two other books simultaneously and by that strange quirk of fate it seems that all three plots revolved around religion and wars. This one, however, was hands down the best of the lot.

But let’s talk first about the cover. I am not sure how many of you are really interested in this part of my blubberings, but hoping that some of you feel as strongly about book covers as I do, I persist. The cover shows a man in a heavy chain mail with an iron mask over his face (which is actually steel) and a paunch, wielding a cumbersome gun in a battle taking place in front of a fort. (That scene never happened by the way). I guess it is appropriate for the subject matter of the book, but I am not sure why the artist chose this particular character.  There were other more poignant (may be poignant is not the correct word – let’s say poignant if you were a Vordanai or a Khandhari) images that leap out in the narrative and seem more appropriate and relevant to the storyline; unless the artist knows something that we don’t about the books that are to follow. Food for thought. So yes, the cover could have been better.

Moving to the story.  The Vordanai belong to a powerful, green and cool kingdom and have set out to rule the world (the author fails to mention if it is also an island). The Khandhari’s are desert people, whose kingdom has just been engulfed in a reformist religious wave, one which is unforgiving, harsh and extremely strict, believes in gender inequality and has a fanatic band of followers. Ring a bell. For a moment there I went back and studied the map carefully to check whether the author was talking about the world as we know it. But no. I am pretty sure he isn’t. And yes, the plot feels eerily familiar for the first few pages, until you get immersed in the characters and let the author enjoy his artistic license. The Vordanai Company stationed at Khandar consisted mostly of the dredges and the troublemakers of the Vordanai main army who had been sent to this desert as a sort of compromise – getting them out of the picture without actually throwing them out of the army. They had it pretty easy before the Redeemers threw them out with the Prince of the city. When we enter the story, they have all been holed up in a fort by the sea, a few miles away from the city, hoping that the Redeemers don’t follow them here to finish them off while waiting for the ships that will take them home. However, when the fleet arrives with a fresh stock of soldiers, the older ones, known as the colonials, are disconcerted to find that they are expected to go back and fight the Redeemer army, which outnumbers them 50 to 1. That’s when the story gets really interesting.

Each chapter is narrated from the point of view of one main character: Jaffa, Winter, Marcus, Feor and even General Khtoba. Most people would love Winter, she is definitely a gritty character, a woman masquerading as a man and that too in the army stationed in hostile territory, but with a lesbian angle that grates on me (it seems two women can no longer be friends without being sexually intimate in present-day literature). However, I became a fan of Marcus. That simple, stolid, honest, loyal soldier. A man who doesn’t really understand the multiple political and personal intrigues unfolding around him and yet tries his best to maneuver both his men and himself around these. Feor is a priestess of the old religion, the one the Redeemers are trying to wipe out, and has quite a bit of magic in her and seems just as her character should be. Jaffa is a Khandhari and I have a suspicion that he will have a more important role in the next book.

The highlights of the book are of course its battle sequences, which are wonderfully written. What was it that General Patton said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.” Easier said than done, I suppose. I could almost feel the tension and the desperation of the men vibrate through me as they faced their enemies. This was not warfare with computers and aircrafts, where the enemy is a dot on your screen or on the horizon, but one where a soldier sees the enemy walking towards him with both murder and fear in his eyes, physically engages with him, all the while trying to maintain a foothold and a space around himself as he is crushed together with thousands of other people equally intent on doing the same.  As I read those battle sequences, I imagined all those wars that the have been fought on my country’s soil against the Mughals and the British, with antiquated weapons that would be no match for guns or even battle-hardened veterans. The sheer overwhelming forces that clashed together in the dust. The fear that any moment you may be hit and not find yourself dead but crippled or, worse, at the mercy of your enemies. How terrible must it be to live through that fear over and over again, knowing that it won’t be over today or the next day or the next?

Oh, I liked this book a lot and I am truly anticipating what the next part brings. Don’t be intimidated by the size of the book, it’s definitely worth it.

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The Random House February book-bag

020320141196Finally my laptop is back from repairs. To tell you the truth it is still wobbly and I guess needs another stint in the repair lab.

This February I showed great restraint and asked for just one book since I was still finishing ‘The thousand names’ from last month.

So for February, Random House sent me:

Until the end of time – Danielle Steele

Thanks a ton as usual guys!

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Boats on Land – Janice Pariat

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This book was sent  to me courtesy of Random House India for review purposes

I am a girl from the hills. It’s the thing that defines me. I know I say it often and that I am an ‘awful repeater’ but it’s as if I can’t stop myself from proclaiming again and again that I belong somewhere in the mountains. The plains don’t suit me as well. And I suppose they never will. There is a way of life and a way of looking at things which is unique to mountain folk, and you have to be one yourself to understand the nostalgia that I and so many other displaced pahari’s feel for home.

Let me be honest. It had been a long while since I read an Indian author that I absolutely loved. And then I received a copy of Boats on Land and the drought effectively ended.

To be sure, I picked it up because I was intrigued by the cover photo. It is such a breathtaking image, somehow symbolizing freedom, loneliness, safety and the vast unknown all at once, apart from of course the thin waist and lovely back. The image is courtesy of Neil Carver from North Carolina. Please ignore his astoundingly bad profile picture on his page, because he has these absolutely amazing photographs on his site at http://neilcraver.500px.com/. He manages to catch such utterly magical qualities in all his subjects that it fair blew my mind. Someday maybe I will manage to get one of his photographs for my home.

And then the stories. Oh the stories! Reminiscent of wood-burning ovens and long winter nights. Of fresh air and green-green trees. But no, they are not just stories that fuel my nostalgia, they are really good. Short, succinct and with this amazing insight into the human mind. I think someone said that the work was reminiscent of Alice Munro and when I think about it, it really is true. Although I thought Janice Pariat had a more fresh and not quite so world-weary a view as Munro’s writings. That is not to rule out the point that a few of her stories are pretty dark. I had thought I would write a short review of all her short stories but that would make this post too long and give away too much. Then I thought I would write about only the ones that I liked, but that was no help as well. That leaves me with the ones that I didn’t really like as much. That is definitely easy and short, but somehow seems unfair.

One-line Snippets seem to be the key. Lets plunge into it before I change my mind once again.

‘Waterfall of Horses’ was a wonderful story, heavy with the weight of the beliefs and the magic of the hills with love, innocence and sheer heartbreak all merged together.

‘At Kut Madan’ is the story of a girl who is declared to be out of her mind by her family, but is she really?

‘Echo words’ is about plain and simple village gossip and is sad but rings utterly deliciously true.

‘Dream of the Golden Mahaseer’ talks about the way people shut out the world in one all-consuming passion, a passion that helps forget hurts and keep at bay the ghosts that plague us – at least for a bit.

‘Secret Corridors’ was one that I thought may be building up to something more than what it actually turned out to be; the plot felt a bit forced.

 ’19/87′ is about the simple pleasures and the lite moments that one stumbles across even in the midst of extreme tension and worry.

‘Laitlum’ is about childhood loves, losses and sibling relationships that shape and mould us for the years to come.

‘Sky Graves’ is about beliefs that are so strong that sometimes they seem to leap out of our consciousness and manifest themselves as solid unbelievable truths.

‘Pilgrimage’ was alright and I did get what the author was talking about but it didn’t really hit the spot for me.

‘Boats on Land’ was baffling in its simplicity and seemed too short and without a proper ending, which was the author’s intention all along of course.

‘Embassy’ is really about storytellers and how sometimes their craft seems to change and distort reality into something more conducive to their mood or their audience.

 ‘The discovery of flight’ is so terribly sad, about how much we know and understand the ones we profess to know or love.

‘Hong Kong’ was about growing up and turning back to see how far you have come from those who at one time seemed so near and dear.

I simply loved ‘A keeper of souls’; it was so mixed with grim reality and uncorroborated beliefs.

‘Aerial view’ I loved for the little girl who got the lovely birthday present; a symbol of love and affection.

I know I have used the word ‘belief’ umpteen times in this post, but like I said, I am an awful repeater and the stories really are about the things people have believed for centuries, whether in the mountains or in the plains. Yet, the superstitions in the mountains have developed in a sort of insulated way from the rest of the world, with not much to add to them and so they are repeated over and over again till they seem to be passed through the blood lines themselves.

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The Spooks’s Revenge – Joseph Delaney

This book was provided to me courtesy of Random House India for review purposes.

As always, lets discuss covers first. If I saw this cover in a  store, I would never buy the book, but I am sure my brother would. However, if it were the original diary -like covers, I would have swooped down on them in no time. The book also contained some really nice black and white illustrations at the beginning of every chapter, adding another whimsical touch to the reading.

I am not sure about the correct way to classify this book. Would it be plain fantasy or would it be better classified as what is now called ‘young adult’? The trouble for me was the style of the writing. For example, Harry Potter is the quintessential children’s fantasy novel; even though people die in the books, the language and style of writing is relatively simple, there is never really any overt violence in the book, and there are very clear demarcations of right and wrong. Also, the love affairs are innocent and childish enough to feel just right for the story. And then there is the Game of thrones series, which is a purely adult fantasy series with extreme violence and gore, interspersed with liberal doses of sex and mayhem. The language is also adult and more aggressive and suits the tone of the book. This book on the other hand is a mix of simple language and a lot of violent imagery. Somehow reading about a witch ‘laying’ with a fiend to give birth to ‘abhumans’ just doesn’t feel like children’s literature to me. How old is exactly the individual who comes under the ‘young adult’ category? The language seemed too simple for a teenager and the content seemed too adult for a kid. Oh yes, I maybe a bit too puritanical for the current times, but I really think children should be allowed their childhood innocence as long as possible.

Spoilers in the paragraph ahead. Skip to the next one for my views on the book, if you haven’t already figured them out.

That apart, what I liked about this book was that, although this was the thirteenth and final book in the ‘Wardstone chronicles’, I did not have much trouble in figuring out the story, which is always a good thing when reading a series. Tom ward is the spook’s apprentice and is also the seventh son of a seventh son. His mother was a powerful witch  and his father was a simple, hard-working human. Spook’s are men who fight witches and other assorted magical creatures, sort of like ghost-busters. The witches have brought a ‘fiend’ to life by their magic in an earlier book, who was then killed and beheaded by Tom and friends, but the body parts were kept apart as if they are put together the fiend will come to life again! In this book the witches are trying to get the fiend’s head from Tom Ward’s friend to join it to the head. Pretty gory, when you hear it like that.

I can’t say that I loved the book but I didn’t hate it either. I can understand its appeal to some people, but I would recommend starting from the first series for others to feel invested in the outcomes of the lives of the main characters. I think that was my main problem with the book that I never felt any sympathy or empathy for Tom Ward. This book was not my cup of tea for sure, and remember I am no stranger to violence-filled fantasy reading. Maybe I was simply too old for it.