My Daily Fix

May 8, 2014

It’s like a drug, this thing. I’ve been hooked for months and I just can’t stop. I’ve been telling myself at the end of each installment: “This is it. Now I’m going to stop. I’m not going to waste any more time and money on this.” But it doesn’t work. I promptly go and buy the next installment and am deep into it before the night is over.

 

George RR Martin and his Game of Thrones, or Song of Ice and Fire as it’s more properly called. What a book. What a world! The characters, the events, the drama, the politics, the scheming manipulations. It’s like nothing I’ve ever come across before. I haven’t watched the TV series (yet; I will, though, I will) but I can just imagine it. I love the way the story unravels at its own leisurely pace, unravels and unravels and unravels like an endless carpet of words. I love the plotting and intrigue. I love the characters. I especially love how, though he starts off with black and white characters, they develop slowly, slowly, over the course of five thousand pages (or is it more; I’ve lost count) till each of them has shades of the other. You can understand what motivates each of them. You can admire them – at least certain aspects – even the ones you are supposed to dislike.

 

After Book 1, I was a bit disappointed. So many things didn’t join up, didn’t come to any kind of satisfactory ending at all. I went on to read other stuff, but it pulled me back. It did. I had to know what happened to all those people, especially to Arya Stark. So I went into Book 2. In Book 2, I decided that magic and fantasy thing weren’t my thing. I would plod through this one (having bought it, after all) and then stop. But that was when I was in the middle of Book 2. By the end, I knew I wasn’t going to stop. At least, not now. Maybe after Book 3. Book 3 had 2 parts, though. I looked longingly at it online, and then went and bought the combined version – 1218 pages! (Thank god for ebooks.)

 

I’m done with that now, and I didn’t even bother to pause before downloading the fourth book. It’s become my daily fix now. I can’t go to sleep without it. I am not entirely pleased with all the plot points, I must admit. I never liked the way he killed off Ned Stark in book 1 and various other favourites have been killed off since. But like I said… good or bad, I just can’t stop. I want to know what happens, but I don’t want it to end.

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Life of Pi

March 7, 2013

Sometimes, without realizing it, a perfect gem just slides past you, or lies around unnoticed for years. It’s not that I’ve had Life of Pi lying around at home unnoticed and unopened; but it could easily have been that way. In fact, it was lying around in the world, in bookshops, in the news, in movie halls now, and was still unnoticed and unopened by me.

And that’s what friends are for. To quietly gift you one of the many such unnoticed gems of life.

When Christina gave me Life of Pi as a birthday gift, I knew that if she liked something enough to get it as a gift for me, it was probably something I wanted to read right away. So I did. In fact, I opened the book as soon as she left and read the first two pages and I liked it already. It still took me another week and another delicious weekend before I could properly get into it and get to the end of it.

For a book that should by rights be somewhat slow, even tedious, it was surprisingly enthralling and hugely unputdownable. It’s clear, if you know anything about the book, or even if you just read the blurb on the back, that it’s the story of a shipwreck. It’s also clear from the beginning that the survivor survived to tell the story. All the same, I couldn’t wait to find out how. I wanted to know all the gory, grisly details, and the book did not disappoint. In fact, some of the portrayals sounded so genuine that one of the first things I did when I finished the book was to check whether the story was in fact a documentary of a real-life incident or not. I was slightly surprised but nonetheless quite satisfied to discover it was not – it was fiction through and through. That was good, though – the tale was too incredible to be true (all they say about fact being stranger than fiction notwithstanding).

I loved the humour in the book, especially in the early chapters, where context is being set and tragedy is yet to come. I normally avoid books that talk about religion because it’s boring to read someone else’s opinion on religion, but not so here. The religious aspects were laid out in such a candid and incredulous manner that you couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

On the whole, I’m not very fond of allegorical works. Perhaps I haven’t read enough of them. The only one that comes to mind is the Narnia Chronicles and I really would have preferred that series if the allegorical aspects had been vastly underplayed and the books had concerned themselves purely with the adventure. The fantabulous Harry Potter series, for instance… could be taken to be allegorical, but they are such a good read even if you completely ignore the understated understory.

Not so here. The allegory is very much there, and you would have to work very hard to ignore it. But, you don’t really want to ignore it, because it’s so well done. It’s not quite in your face – the adventure stands on its own even without the allegorical interpretation – but it’s clearly brought out at the end, point clearly made. I like that it’s not too perfect either, not an absolute parallel. I like that there are many ways of reading it. Who, exactly, does Richard Parker represent? Who does the inebriated crew represent? And what was all that about meerkats?

After a long time, here’s a book I definitely want to read a second time.

And yes, I want to watch the movie too.


The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – Book Review

August 22, 2011

My eyes are hurting. I took up the book at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning and was compelled to put it down when Amit told me it was midnight on Sunday night. I’d begun the book a couple of days earlier, I don’t recall exactly when. It would not be incorrect to say that the days have passed in a blur since then, with all time not spent with the book being spent waiting to get back to the book. Husband and kids have been given short shrift.

It’s a long, long time since a book had me hooked this way. To put it another way, this is probably one of the best – if not the best – action-thriller books I have ever read. Not that I’ve read much of this genre in recent years, but there was a time 20-something years ago when I read them faster than they were churned out. In those days, I was very well acquainted with the works of Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth and the rest of their ilk. I recently read and complained at great length about Frederick Forsyth’s recent attempt to write a book – The Cobra. At that time, I was wondering if I’d forgotten what this genre was like, or if I was wrong to have a completely different level of expectation from what The Cobra provided. This book proves that I wasn’t wrong and I hadn’t forgotten.

It has everything that Cobra doesn’t. It draws you in quickly. It has a vastly complicated plot with many different aspects, but all the threads are drawn together and tightened and then unraveled in an absolutely masterful way. There are as many or possibly even more characters than in Cobra, but the key characters are well defined and even some of the bit-part players are more memorable and human than the key characters of Cobra. You know, as you read the book, that each character was a person to the author – with a complete history, context, and three-dimensional personality, only a fraction of which is actually specified in the writing. That’s something completely lacking in Cobra – each character was just a pawn on a chessboard in an immensely boring and low-skill version of the game.

The book has an incredible pace – 740-odd pages of non-stop – not action, but development. All the time, there’s something going on. There’s never a dull moment, never a pause. You get to see a piece of everybody’s picture, so that often you know things that another actor in the plot doesn’t know. It makes you wonder how on earth the author managed to keep it all straight in his mind and get it down on paper without stumbling all over the hundred tangled threads of the plot. What’s more, each change in perspective, each shift in scene or setting, is done smoothly, flawlessly. Despite the number of people and perspectives, the reader is rarely confused.

One of the things I found fascinating was the ethical norms implicit in the book. There are the bad guys who should have been the good guys (and thought of themselves as such but kind of got carried away). There are the good guys who are law-enforcement guys and tread very, very carefully, always considering which laws they are over-stepping and why and by how much. There are the good rogue guys – the journalists, who play by completely different rules from the law-enforcement guys, twist and bend a lot of laws, but still attempt to be largely ethical. And then there’s the victim – victimized, vengeful, violent, and not afraid to break any law that comes in her way.

I’ve never read a book with so many women in it, many of them in quite significant roles both in the plot and in their society. And so much openness about matters sexual. There’s no explicit sex scene, but sex is treated in such a matter-of-fact way that for me it was completely surprising. Very early in the book, there’s reference to a man and his partner – his male partner – which is mentioned so casually I actually had to rub my eyes and check that both people were male. (Their names are confusing.) Later on, a woman takes our hero to bed in a very brazen way (multiple times, I might add) and another woman seems to have an interesting marriage which not only has involved a threesome at least once, but also allows the woman to have a lover on the side that her husband knows and doesn’t bother about. Then our victim, who is not at all the passive, helpless kind, propositions a man on one occasion and a woman on another. The man accepts, the woman doesn’t, and both of them are only slightly taken aback by it. All this is very strange not just to my not-very-conservative Indian way of thinking, but also in the context of so many other books mostly by American authors, where sex is usually not such an extremely casual matter. One thing that does come out, because of this or regardless of it, is the position of equality and strength of women. It is tempting to say that this is reflective of Swedish society, but, who knows, it might just be this particular author, or this particular work of fiction.

The conversation in the book is fun. A lot of it is very terse and snappy and some parts are breathtakingly rude. Again, I don’t know whether this is reflective of Swedish society in general, or just the way people in this particular book talk. Either way, it was enjoyable and subtly added another dimension of racy action to the book.

Unfortunately, without realising it, I picked the third in a set of three books – because this was the title I’d heard most about. I am sure I’m going to read the first two books in the series as well – but I’d better not do it right away or my family will disown me (not that I’d notice it). My greatest regret is that the author, Steig Larsson, unfortunately died unexpectedly after having completed only 3 books – apparently, he intended a series of 10. What a tragedy. But, when they turn this into a movie, as I’m sure they will sooner or later, I’ll be standing in line.


Book Review: The Cobra

June 20, 2011

I just finished – or should I say, I just managed to struggle through to the end of – this best seller by Frederick Forsyth. I think I used to read Frederick Forsyth twenty-odd years ago. I’m reasonably certain I read The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and The Fourth Protocol. Maybe also The Negotiator. I had the impression of good, fast-paced, thrilling action books, with intricate plots. Either my memory sucks, or the Frederick Forsyth who wrote The Cobra is not the same Frederick Forsyth who wrote those masterpieces. Because, I don’t care how many million copies he’s sold and what the rest of the world says, in my opinion, The Cobra is no masterpiece.

There are many problems with the book. The first and foremost is that it just doesn’t draw you in. A good book should draw you in no matter what point you flip it open at. And certainly, it should draw you in at the beginning. And even if it wants to get off to a slow start (which it shouldn’t if it is supposed to be an action-thriller) it should still get going in the first 50 pages or so. This one doesn’t. I waited for it to get going for the first 292 pages and then realized that it would finish in another 100 pages. Mind you, a riveting climax after a 300-page yawn would still be something – but nope – no climax, riveting or otherwise.

The book doesn’t have much of a plot. It has a problem statement, which is to the effect: Cocaine is bad. It destroys people. The “plot” if you want to glorify it by the name, is to get rid of the cocaine industry. In my dictionary, the word “plot” involves some twisting and turning, something well woven together, multi-dimensional. Something that goes in a straight line could possibly be a “story” but even a story should have some elements of interest, some element of surprise. On reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin recently (kids’ version – is there any other?) I discovered that it has a twist in the tail. I either never knew, or had forgotten, that after he rids the town of rats, the Pied Piper is cheated of his payment and takes his revenge by walking off with all the children of Hamelin. That’s what I call a story. Without that part, it’s hardly even a tale worth telling. The Cobra doesn’t have that. There is something that happens at the end, but, to be honest, I didn’t get it. And in any case, the main aspects of the ending were such a let down, that it was hardly even worth wondering about the details.

Even books without a plot are carried through sometimes on the strength of their characters. Wuthering Heights, for one. The plot is one that has been repeated a thousand times before and since. But the characters – ah! What characters! It’s probably unfair to pit a lowly work like The Cobra against a true masterpiece like Wuthering Heights, but if you’re supposed to be an international best seller, then you’re asking for it.

Next problem – The Cobra is full of people – so many that the author thought best to list them out in the beginning and probably had to refer to the list himself to remind himself of who’s who. That’s what it comes across as. Each person is a name and a designation (of sorts) but nothing more than that. Even characters who play key roles, who occupy the central parts of the narrative, such as Cal Dexter, The Animal, the Cobra himself, the Don, all of them are two-dimensional. The only character who has a shade of a third dimension is Senor Cardenas, and that’s only because he effectively sacrifices his life for his daughter, a daughter he dearly loves – this, at least, is something the average reader can relate to. The rest of the characters – nada.

And the biggest let down – for an action thriller, this book is completely lacking in action and thrill. There is something happening, of course. Something is happening right through the book, all the way to the end, almost. But it’s not exciting. You don’t get right into the action – you see it from a mile above. There are a lot of dry details about how the “war” against drug trade is planned. You might well be impressed by the author’s knowledge of ships and planes. You might also, towards the end, be impressed by the number of gangs he names in various parts of the world. But come on – this is not a text book on ships, planes, and gang names. I want the action, gimme the action!

You’d think that with that many fast-paced action thrillers under his belt – which I presume he has, though I haven’t read all of them – the author would know by now how to get the reader right down into the action. But either Frederick Forsyth has forgotten his craft, or I’ve forgotten how to read this genre.


Another Review

June 13, 2011

It’s so nice when you come across perfect strangers who have read your book and liked it enough to say so. I know I’m being disgustingly vain now, but what the heck – my two seconds of fame, I might as well enjoy it.

http://www.hopehorizons.in/2011/05/book-review-worth-every-gasp.html


Book Review: Purple Hibiscus

February 28, 2011

When I started reading this book, I found it too slow and a bit difficult to get into. I was in the mood for something intense and gripping. But I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. I think it’s going to be the kind of book that stays with me for a long time.

It’s a slow story, one that builds up slowly and, after it’s reached the climax, lets you down slowly, so slowly that it’s only a day or two after finishing the book that you realize where exactly the climax was. It’s a thoughtful book, intense in its own slow, descriptive way. The characters are drawn in a few strokes, but they seem real all the same. The most shocking part of the book, deliberately, compellingly, inhumanly shocking, is the domestic violence, which is described objectively, matter-of-factly. It is so extremely matter-of-fact that you can hardly believe it is violence being described. What’s even more difficult to stomach – though I don’t disbelieve it; I just don’t understand it – is how the girl still loves her father so much. And that he also probably really loves her – and the rest of his family – in his horribly twisted, violent way. In that way, it’s a chilling book.

At first the book reminded me of To Kill a Mocking Bird. By the time I’d finished, I could still see some similarity, though obviously the storyline is completely different. The narrative style is similarly simple and direct, without decoration. And the voice is that of a small girl. The difference is that here, the girl is hardly a small girl – she’s 15. The entire time that I was reading, I could not picture a girl of 15. She sounds about 7. That disconnect adds to the impact of the story she’s telling. With a life like that, what would you expect?

Having myself come from a largely “normal” family (whatever “normal” might be) it is very difficult – actually, impossible, maybe – for me to imagine or accept that all around us there are families where these things happen. This book forces me to think about that. While many works of fiction are forgotten soon after you put them down, this one forces me to accept that a different kind of family, a different kind of reality is out there. This book brought that reality to life for me in just one story. Very few books can do that.


Comic Books

March 23, 2010

I’ve never been too much into comic books. I went through the Archie comics when I was in my teens, along with everyone else, and I enjoyed them just as much as the next person; I would probably still enjoy reading one, if it came my way; but I’ve never been very deeply into comics. Comics were always a filler, or what is called “time-pass” and never long-term companions like books were.

I’d never taken to Asterix or Tintin, until Amit introduced me to the latter a few years ago and I decided I liked it. I’ve still not taken to Asterix, but Tintin is still good timepass.

So when Christina gifted me a comic book for my birthday, I was a little bemused. Comic book? And I mean, this one was a full-fledged book, not like the flimsy Archie digest or the little less flimsy double digest. This was – to all appearances – a book, but it was full of comics inside.

Hmmm. Ok. I’ll give it a shot. Some day.

So I started reading it – can you read comics? So much of it is not in the written word. – some days ago and… it was a revelation! There was a proper “story” and proper characters, who even had something of a personality. What’s more, I found, I looked at the drawings, instead of just reading the text, and the drawings spoke volumes. They were really expressive. And these are just pen strokes, they’re not even in colour, and they’re somehow different from the Archie and Tintin style that I’m used to. And yet, those few stylised pen strokes conveyed real emotions and expressions. It was amazing. Thanks, Chris!

The book is called Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. It’s the story of a girl and her family, set in Iran in the ’80s. Despite being in comic book format – or should I say, despite my misgivings about the comic book format – the tale at once drew me in and held my interest. That’s more than I can say of some “conventional” books.

Which is why I always say, if you want to gift me something, let it be a book. I’ll attempt almost anything once, and I’m open to being pleasantly surprised. (Of course, the moment I say that, I think of Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, which was also a gift and not one I particularly enjoyed. But well – at least I read Chetan Bhagat in the bargain and now I know why I’m wary of Indian writers in English.)

Now let me go read another chapter of that comic book.


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